Lazy Mother Sauce

Picture it. Julia Child in your kitchen at 5 PM on a weeknight. Perhaps things are going a little like this. Julia, in her high-pitched warble, is talking to you. TO YOU. You, with two children under five years old. You, with the husband who prefers Kraft macaroni n’ cheese to homemade. You, who cooked professionally in white tablecloth restaurants but now spend most days endlessly making variations on the PB&J theme.

And she’s saying, “Make a béchamel sauce, stupid.”

[Collective sharp intake of breath from readers!]

Really? A homemade white sauce? When dinner needs to be on the table in 30 minutes? But when Julia talks, you listen. At six feet, she’s kind of intimidating. Especially wielding a large chef’s knife. So I make a béchamel.

And it’s not hard! It’s damn easy! And then I add some grated sharp cheddar cheese and seasonings. Voila — a Mornay sauce! And then I add some cooked elbow pasta and vegetables — broccoli, or peas, or chard, or spinach. Maybe I get fancy and add some meat. Cooked sweet Italian sausage from High Point Farms! Or leftover cooked chicken from the crockpot! And then, sweet Jesus, I pour the whole thing into a buttered casserole dish and throw it in the oven. A half hour later (maybe even 20 minutes!), I have dinner.

Oh cheesy goodness. Thank you, white sauce. I owe you one.

And the kids, the husband, the erstwhile professional chef. We all eat the hell out of that casserole. For several days.

Then Julia sits down at my table. She sips her tiny glass of wine; she raises the glass to me.

“Bon appetit!” she trills. “I told you so.”

Lazy Cook’s Basic White Sauce (Béchamel or velouté)
[from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, 1970]

This is what the French call a mother sauce. Start here, then add whatever you want. Just follow a few basic rules and you’re good.

For a sauce to use for casseroles, or pasta (aka, homemade mac n’ cheese), this amount will work for a whole box of pasta — or even about 2-3 cups cooked rice. Makes about 2 cups sauce of medium thickness. I just made a kick ass homemade tuna noddle casserole with a béchamel base LAST NIGHT. It was a revelation…

I was taught to use equal parts fat and flour to make a roux. Julia does things a little different. I’ve done it both ways and for my purposes, either will work:

2 TB butter, unsalted
3 TB flour
2 cups milk (I use 2%, cause that’s we drink)
OR 2 cups chicken stock
Salt and pepper

› A heavy-bottomed stainless steel, copper or enameled 6 cup saucepan or pot.
› A wire whisk [Preferably a flat wire whisk, like this one. This is some of the best money you can spend on a kitchen gadget. There are a few others, which is for another post…]

1) Melt the butter over low heat in the saucepan. Add the flour and blend with the whisk. Stir for about 2 minutes, making sure it doesn’t brown. You’ll have a frothy butter and flour mixture now — a white roux (roo).

2) *Warning* I am lazy. And I don’t have all day in the kitchen. So I throw caution to the wind. Instead of adding heated milk or broth to the roux, I just pour it in straight from the fridge. If you do this, pour it slow and steady, then whisk like mad to combine it. Never had a problem. Make sure you get into all the inside edges of the pot to get the bits of roux.

3) Crank your pan up to medium high and stir occasionally* until the sauce comes to a boil (or rapid simmer even). Boil for a minute, stirring to make sure nothing sticks to the bottom of the pan and burns. [* Most people think you need to watch like a hawk and stir the whole time. Trust me, you can even walk into the living room to discipline your kids while you cook this — just turn your heat down lower before you do.]

4) Done! Remove the sauce from heat and add salt and pepper to taste. Now, add additional flavorings for whatever you’re making: maybe dry mustard, LOTS of salt and 2 cups grated cheddar cheese for mac n’ cheese or similar casserole; or sautéed minced onions and sliced mushrooms, cooked down with a dash of soy sauce and Sherry, plus flaked tuna (and cheese! Why not?), for aforementioned tuna noodle casserole (based on this recipe). Add curry powder! Add fresh herbs! Add tomato puree! Add more exclamation points!

5) What if I screw up? Don’t screw up, it wastes time but if you do, Julia has some tricks. Lumpy sauce? Force through a sieve, or put in blender, then simmer for 5 minutes. Too thick? Thin it with milk, cream or stock, a tablespoon at a time. Too thin? Boil it down, or add a butter and flour paste (buerre manié) and cook for another minute or so.


5 thoughts on “Lazy Mother Sauce

  1. Well, I do mention this in Step 2 — but as usual, my instructions are a tad wordy… 🙂 It’s a curse. I need to work on that. Right away. After I get a snack. Happy white sauce making! XO

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