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How to Jazz Up a White Sauce

Updated on July 19, 2012

My mother used to make a white sauce to finish up leftover ham. Creamed ham, maybe creamed chicken, creamed tuna. It kind of recalls that boring old military staple, creamed chipped beef. Put some veggies in it. Serve it over mashed potatoes, biscuits, or toast. Good stuff until you fix too much of it. Then it's boring.

But hey, it's how I learned to cook. When I moved off campus in college to a place with kitchen privileges, I had limited choices for food.

  • I could get a meal ticket in a dorm. Not only was that, well, dorm food, but nearest cafeteria I could go to was twice as far as the building where I had most of my classes.
  • I could start the fast food routine, there were only two or three places in easy walking distance. They didn't offer as much variety as they do today, and even the cheapest meals added up to more money than I wanted to spend every day on boring food.
  • I could get TV dinners at the grocery store. Nowadays, stores offer a good variety of good tasting microwave meals. I was in college before the days of the microwave. There were one or two brands of things I could get in metal trays to put in the oven. The thought of eating more than one every couple of months made me gag.
  • I could learn to cook. Bingo.

I certainly can't remember what if anything I was thinking, but I didn't ask Mom, an excellent cook, for pointers. I figured out the stuff I'm writing about pretty much on my own. Frankly, I got pretty sick of creamed anything by the end of the first year. I asked Mom for some recipes after that. Since then, I have learned lots of ways to jazz up a boring old white sauce.

Basic White Sauce Instructions

  1. Heat 2T butter or oil in a saucepan over medium heat. (I used to use margarine, but no one yet knew about the health hazards of trans fats.)
  2. Add 2 T white flour and let it brown a little. (I tried whole wheat flour a couple of times, but it's not as good a thickener.) This rather dubious looking mixture is called a roux in cookbooks. French names sometimes help.
  3. Stirring constantly, add 1 c. milk, a little at a time. Let the roux absorb all the milk before adding any more. When all the milk is in the pan, keep stirring until it thickens.
  4. Add the ham or whatever. If you want, you can put frozen peas or mixed vegetables in the butter or oil before you add the flour.
  5. If you like canned mushrooms, drain the liquid into your measuring cup and then add milk to make a full cup. It tastes the same, and you're not pouring vitamins down the drain.
  6. Salt and pepper to taste
  7. Serve over toast or whatever else you like and enjoy--but not so often that you might get really bored.

I have since learned that the boring old white sauce is called Bechamel sauce in French cooking. French cooks do all kinds of things with it besides just making a funeral for a ham. There's no point getting into that in a hub about comfortably making the transition from carry-out to cooking, but eventually you'll get comfortable and confident. Then you can look into French recipes.

Meanwhile you can experiment with various spices to liven things up. About 1/4 t. of any one of, say, oregano, basil, thyme, rosemary, tarragon, nutmeg, etc. would give your meal a very different flavor. If you want to learn to cook, try stuff. You'll like some of your experiments and not others.

In case you don't already know some of the basic abbreviations cooks use, here are the ones I've used in this hub:

T = tablespoon
t = teaspoon
c. = cup

And here are some simple ways of using the very same techniques to make a variety of other sauces and gravies.

Pan gravy

Use 2T of drippings from pan-fried chicken, pork chops, or whatever other kind of gravy you like instead of butter or oil.

Sausage gravy
Sausage gravy | Source

Sausage gravy

Cook up 1/2 pound of bulk sausage. If there's more than 2 T fat, drain it off. Then add the flour, stir to mix, and add the milk as above. It's great over biscuits.

Curry sauce

Add 1 t curry powder shortly before adding the flour. For a slightly different taste and color, you may use chicken broth instead of milk, or use a small can of tomato sauce and add enough milk to make a full cup.

Cheese sauce

After your basic white sauce thickens, add 1 c. firmly packed shredded cheese--whatever you have a taste for, EXCEPT

Low-fat approximation of Alfredo sauce

Add about 1/4 c. shredded Parmesan cheese or Parmesan/Romano cheese instead of one cup of, say, cheddar.

Low-fat approximation of Carbonara sauce

Add crumbled, cooked bacon to the Alfredo sauce. Neither of these are quite the real thing., but they're easy and taste good. I just looked at video for a real carbonara sauce. It's just as easy, but it involves cooking and draining the pasta and adding cream, egg yolks, bacon and Parmesan cheese. Not quite right for anyone who wants to get off carry-out to lose weight!

Chop suey sauce

Use chicken broth instead of milk in the basic white sauce. I discovered this when I wanted to see if I could make chicken gravy with broth. Since I don't much like chop suey, it wasn't one of my more successful experiments. Some people like it a lot. If you do it deliberately, season it with soy sauce instead of salt and pepper.

Potato soup

Use only 1 T each of butter and flour and add cooked potatoes, cut into bite-size pieces. You can chop up raw potatoes and cook them while you're making the white sauce, or you can cut up leftover boiled or baked potato.

New England clam chowder

Add one can of clams, juice and all, to your potato soup. You might want to use all the oil and flour for a regular white sauce if adding more liquid to that potato soup makes it thinner than you like. This is admittedly not the best recipe for New England clam chowder, but it's pretty good and just another variation on a white sauce.

Kettle gravy
Kettle gravy | Source

Kettle gravy

This isn't a white sauce variation, but since I said you could use the liquid from a pot roast for gravy, I might as well explain how. For every cup of gravy, bring one cup of the liquid to a boil in a saucepan. Mix 2 T of white flour or 1 T of cornstarch in 1/4 c. cold water. Pour it into the boiling liquid slowly while stirring. Season to taste.

By the way, I found that tomato based curry sauce I mentioned as a variation of kettle gravy. That recipe has the tomato sauce and a little milk added to a couple of cups of water. There's no oil; you add the curry powder to the mixture along with the (cooked) meat and vegetables. The recipe says to thicken it with cornstarch, but I had trouble with it burning a little and making the pan hard to wash. I started leaving out the corn starch and adding 1 c. white rice and 1 1/2 c. more water. I confess I haven't made it as a white sauce variant, although I make the milk and chicken broth variants frequently.


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    • allpurposeguru profile image

      David Guion 5 years ago from North Carolina

      Thanks to both of you. White sauce (made with Wondra flour!) was one of the first things I learned how to cook. I was really glad to learn so many things to do with the basic technique--after I learned to make it with regular flour, of course!

    • LaThing profile image

      LaThing 5 years ago from From a World Within, USA

      I use white sauce for lot of my recipes..... But never tried curry powder with it. Cool ideas.... Voting up, and awesome.

    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 5 years ago from Nashville Tn.

      Thank you so much for this delicious hub on jazzing up white sauce. I love the photos. I will try your "kettle" gravy this weekend. Yummy!

      Voted up and across and sharing too.