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Things Granny Knew: How To Make A White Sauce

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Sabine Schneider
Sabine Schneider

If we believe foody magazines and cooking shows on the box, everybody knows what vinaigrette is, how to deglaze a pan and that white sauce is a thing of the past. I disagree. My gran knew how to make white sauce taste like the natural and delicious partner for vegies, pasta, fish and other foods.

I've asked a few people if they knew how to make a white sauce - some, if not most, of them instantly said "Yuk" accompanied by a lot of shuddering. One said "My sauces come out of bottles or bags, but I'd never buy WHITE sauce, it's horrible."
Okay, I admit it - white sauce CAN be horrible. But it's mainly because the cook doesn't know how to make it.
A white sauce, well made, is no sticky, slimy, wallpaper paste that tastes of absolutely nothing. It rather is a tasty, light sauce that adds a twist to quite a few otherwise drab and dry dishes.
Take a little time to learn how to make this basic sauce and some of its variations.
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp flour
1 cup cold milk
salt and pepper to taste
Melt the butter in a small saucepan on low heat.

Sprinkle flour on butter.

Take a whisk and stir.

Let it bubble for a few seconds until no lumps are left, but do not let it brown.

Stirring constantly, slowly add a little cold milk. Stir until milk is incorporated, then add some more.

The stirring should be done in a figure-8 movement, so nothing can stick to the bottom of the pan.

Continue stirring with the whisk until the sauce is smooth and has the desired consistency.

This process can take a little time, say 4-5 minutes or even longer. It's possible to speed it up by turning the heat up, but I recommend you give this a miss until you're quite comfortable making the sauce.

Season well. Don't omit the salt, it is the "heart" of the sauce.

Return to a boil. Cook for no less than 5 minutes.

If you think the sauce is too thick, add some more liquid, bring to the boil and stir once more.
If you want a velvety consistency strain the sauce through a very fine sieve. I usually don't do this because I can't be bothered cleaning the sieve...

Firstly you can vary the cooking liquid: Instead of milk take water, vegetable- , chicken- or fish-stock. Try coconut milk, the leftover water from cooking broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus or other vegies. Mix some dry white wine with water, or add the juice of half a lemon or orange - both add a tangy taste that matches well with most vegetables.
Secondly you can add herbs and spices: A few thyme leaves (fresh or dried), lots of freshly cracked pepper, mixed herbs, tarragon, some lemon zest, curry powder, loads of chives or parsley or both, some crushed garlic or ginger. Of course I don't mean to add ALL of those, just one or two will do. By the way: Cracked pepper combines with most herbs and garlic goes well with just about anything.
Lastly we can add other ingredients, such as 2 tablespoons of blue-vein cheese or grated "tasti", 1 tablespoon of mustard or 1 tablespoon of tomato paste. A fillet of anchovy. Nuts are also good: Add 2 tbsp of ground walnuts and 2 tbsp of grated parmesan cheese for a tasty pasta sauce. This sauce is also lovely with horseradish for a zingy companion to beef, veggies and potatoes.
Some variations are classic combinations: Coconut milk, ginger and curry powder for chicken or eggs. Lemon juice and chives, or lemon juice and tarragon for fish. Blue-vein cheese for pasta.
One of the variations actually has a proper name - the classic Béchamel Sauce. Here's a recipe:
1 tbsp butter
2 tbsp each very finely chopped small onion and shaved ham
1 pinch thyme
1 tbsp chopped parsley
1 tbsp flour
1 cup milk
1 bay leaf
1 tsp lemon zest
salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste
Melt butter; add onion, ham, thyme and parsley. Cook for one minute. Sprinkle with flour. Stirring constantly, slowly add cold milk. Add bay leaf and lemon zest. Season with salt, pepper and a pinch of nutmeg. Cover with lid and cook for about 20 minutes. Strain through a sieve. (This time it's necessary to remove all the bits, but I still don't like cleaning the sieve.)
Other recipes for Béchamel ask you to spike an onion with cloves to flavour the milk, but that's too fidgety for me. If you like, add one clove to the sauce to give it that special flavour. And don't forget to strain it out...
Besides tasting great this sauce has another advantage: It is incredibly cheap. With all the variations you'll be able to change the character of this simple sauce dramatically and make it suitable for a wide range of dishes.

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