Back to basics: White sauce

Back to basics: White sauce

Once you have mastered the basic skills to make a white sauce, the selection of dishes you can create will be endless.

The basics

  • A classic white sauce is based on a roux, which is simply a cooked mix of flour and fat. A basic white sauce uses milk; but by varying the liquid used, other sauces can be made. For example, a béchamel sauce is one made using infused milk (milk flavoured with herbs and onion), while a velouté is one made with stock. Brown sauces are made by browning the roux, usually with onions, before adding stock.
  • To make a lower-fat sauce you need to use a low-fat spread rather than butter. As a guide, choose one with about 50-60% fat content. Ones with a very low fat content are not suitable as they have too much water.

Basic white sauce technique

To make one quantity of sauce

  1. Melt 50g (2 round tablespoons) of low-fat spread in a small pan. Stir in 50g (4 rounded tablespoons) flour with a wooden spoon
  2. Stir until the mixture forms a smooth ball in the base of the pan. Cook the roux over a gentle heat, stirring occasionally for 2-3 minutes until it has a sandy texture but has not changed colour. Cool slightly before adding the liquid.
  3. Gradually add 600ml of hot milk to the cooked roux over a low heat, stirring in each addition. Stir until it is thick and smooth, then simmer gently, stirring occasionally. This is a coating sauce consistency – it will coat the back of a wooden spoon and will make a thicker textured sauce that's good for dressing vegetables and pasta dishes. Season with salt and pepper. (See below for pouring consistency variation.)


  • Cheese sauce: stir in 1/2 cup of grated cheese just before serving – the heat of the sauce will melt the cheese.
  • Parsley sauce: stir in 2-3 heaped tablespoons of finely chopped parsley (oregano, marjoram, tarragon also work) just before serving.
  • Onion sauce: saute a finely chopped medium onion in a tablespoon of olive oil before adding to the white sauce.
  • White wine sauce:replace 100ml of the milk with white wine and cook like a basic white sauce. Stir in a tablespoon of fresh herbs such as thyme, tarragon or oregano.
  • Mushroom sauce: saute 1 cup of mushrooms in olive oil and stir into the white sauce.
  • Mixed herbs: add 1/2-1 teaspoon dried herbs to the white sauce. Simmer for 2 minutes.
  • Infusing flavours: To infuse flavours into milk, add slices of onion, some peppercorns, fresh herbs or a bouquet garni (a bag of mixed herbs). Bring slowly to the boil, then remove the pan from the heat. Cover and leave to stand for 10 minutes. Strain the milk before using.
  • Pouring consistency(ie. a thinner sauce): Follow the same method as for roux sauce but use 15g flour and 15g low-fat spread with 300ml milk/liquid.
  • All-in-one-sauce: For this you will need a balloon whisk. This method uses the same ingredients and proportions as the roux method but the liquid added must be cold. Place the flour, low-fat spread and cold liquid in a pan. Whisk with a balloon whisk over a moderate heat until boiling. Stir over the heat for 2 minutes, until thickened and smooth.

Making in advance and storing

A white sauce can be made ahead and reheated when needed. Keep the sauce warm in a bain-marie (place the pot in a bowl of warm water) for up to an hour. When you need the sauce, put it back on the stove and increase the heat, stirring until heated through and smooth. Simmer for a minute.

Sauces can be reheated in the microwave. Reheat on medium-high; whisk the sauce every minute until well heated, thick and smooth. A white sauce can be refrigerated for several days in an airtight container and then reheated.

Help! My sauce has gone lumpy!

If you end up with a lumpy sauce, this could be because you've added the liquid when the roux was too hot. So always remember to remove the pan from the heat and allow the roux to cool slightly before adding the liquid. Lumps can be removed by whisking the sauce briskly.

Recipe ideas

Pork with herby white wine sauce
Cheesy vegetable medley

Author: Sarah Swain

Healthy Food Guide

First published: Jul 2007

2017-04-03 16:58:06

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