Pesto is nice and red sauce is always a good idea, but can we talk about white sauce for a second? It’s creamy, comforting and usually accompanied by boatloads of freshly grated Parmesan cheese—all we really want in a bowl of pasta—but what is it, actually? And how can you make it at home? You’re in luck, friend: The dairy-based pasta accompaniment has a surprisingly short list of ingredients and is pretty simple to whip up in your own kitchen, as long as you have a few essential techniques under your belt.
What is white sauce?
White sauce is just the colloquial name for béchamel, a flour-and-milk-based sauce that’s an essential part of traditional French cuisine. (That’s because béchamel serves as the base for a lot of other sauces.) If you want to get technical, it’s one of the five “mother sauces,” and has been a culinary staple in France since the 17th century but actually dates back to 16th-century Italy.
White sauce starts with something called a roux, which is a mixture of cooked flour and butter that thickens the sauce. Equal amounts of flour and butter are melted together on the stove top, then cooked until just slightly toasty. Next, milk is whisked into the roux and simmered—often with aromatics and seasonings—until it’s thick, smooth and velvety.
But don’t confuse white sauce with alfredo: Alfredo is traditionally made with just butter and Parmesan cheese, although modern recipes often include heavy cream.
Once you know how to make white sauce, you can make mornay sauce (béchamel plus Gruyère cheese), soubise sauce (béchamel plus pureed onions) and even a cheddar cheese sauce for homemade macaroni and cheese. Because the basic sauce is a blank slate, you can add flavorings like onions, garlic, herbs and spices as you please. But before you get to that step, here’s exactly how to make a classic white sauce for pasta.
1½ tablespoons unsalted butter
1½ tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup whole milk
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of nutmeg (optional)
Step 1: Make a roux
In a small or medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium-high heat, being careful not to brown or burn it. Add the flour and whisk into a paste. Cook the mixture, stirring constantly, until it no longer smells like raw flour, about 1 minute. (It should smell slightly nutty and be a pale golden color.)
Step 2: Add the milk
While whisking, add the milk to the saucepan in a slow stream, making sure to fully incorporate the roux into the liquid.
Step 3: Thicken the sauce
Continue heating and stirring the white sauce until it starts to thicken and comes to a simmer. Reduce the heat to low and continue to cook and stir until the sauce is thick, about 4 minutes. The sauce should be just thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.
Step 4: Season the sauce
Season the white sauce to taste with kosher salt and black pepper. If desired, you can add a pinch of nutmeg. Give the sauce a final whisk to make sure there are no lumps. (You can also strain the sauce through a fine mesh sieve if you want.)
And voilà, you have a batch of homemade white sauce ready to be poured over pasta (or stored in an airtight container in the fridge for up to five days). This recipe should yield about a cup of sauce, but it can easily be doubled or tripled as needed. And if you need more inspiration for using up all that creamy sauce, why not make a white pizza or a croque madame Dutch baby?