The World of White Sauces

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“Where’s my white sauce? Where’s my white sauce?” How many times can I remember calling this out to my station chefs looking for that glorious, versatile, make-it-all-taste-good sauce? What other sauce has as much application in today’s kitchens as the time-tested, old-faithful, never-let-me-down white sauce, also known as béchamel sauce?

Historically grand

This delicious, versatile old faithful has an old history. In order to properly examine this sauce, we need to know a little bit about how and where it originated.

Béchamel sauce was reputedly first created between the 14th and 16th centuries. Several theories have evolved as to the true inventor of the sauce. Historians have cited both Catherine de’ Medici, the Italian-born queen of France, and Duke Philippe De Mornay, creator of the fabulous Mornay sauce, as the sauce’s creator. Some believe the sauce also was possibly named after Marquis Louis de Béchameil, a 17th-century financier.

Through the centuries, béchamel sauce has become known as one of the five grand sauces, or “mother” sauces, that make up the foundation of sauce cookery. Velouté, espagnole, tomato and hollandaise make up the rest of the class of grand sauces.

Studying the classics

The classic preparation of béchamel sauce is to make a roux by combining melted butter and flour in a saucepan and mix until achieving a consistency of wet sand. The roux is cooked only for a few minutes, making sure not to change the color of the flour and butter mixture. Milk is whisked in and the mixture is brought back to a simmer. The sauce should be thick enough to evenly coat the back of a spoon. The sauce is then seasoned with salt, white pepper and a touch of nutmeg.

Béchamel sauce is delightful enough to use on its own to accent fish, poultry, eggs and vegetables, but it’s the derivative sauces made from the béchamel sauce that can really tantalize the taste buds, as well as get the creative juices flowing. One of the most common sauces derived from béchamel is the simple addition of cream. The classic name for this sauce is crème sauce. The addition of the cream delivers richness and creaminess that suits it to a host of applications. By itself, crème sauce is ideal for rich pasta sauces, as well as draping over a pan-seared chicken breast or sea bass. Add some fresh grated Parmesan cheese to prepared béchamel sauce and you have a speed-scratch version of an Alfredo sauce.

Another common, if not the most-popular, béchamel derivative, is Mornay sauce. Typically, grated Gruyère and Parmesan are blended at a 50:50 ratio and added to the béchamel to make classic Mornay sauce. This sauce is commonly served with seafood and vegetables, but has application in just about every category. A couple of my favorite dishes featuring Mornay sauce include crab Mornay, used as an appetizer, and lobster Mornay over pasta, served as an entrée.

Mornay sauce can also be used as a glassage (glaze) to finish a dish to give color and flavor. Simply top the main protein of the dish with 2 oz. of Mornay sauce and gratinée (brown, typically au gratin style) under a broiler. This is a simple way to make a dish special.

Another unique application for Mornay sauce is a binder for seafood stuffings. Whether using shrimp, crab or even lobster, the creamy Mornay sauce gives the stuff- ing a delightful texture and flavor and helps bind the mixture without overdoing the breadcrumbs, which tend to make the stuffing pasty or heavy.

Velouté sauce, also one of the mother sauces, in many ways is also considered to be a white sauce. The difference between velouté and béchamel is that béchamel is made with a pale roux and includes milk as the liquid, while velouté is made with a blond roux and white stock as the liquid. White stock is made with bones that have not been roasted, whereas brown stocks use roasted bones for a more-assertive flavor and darker color. The blond roux is made the same way as the pale roux, just cooked longer until slightly browned. Chicken stock is most commonly chosen as the liquid, although a white beef stock can also be used.

Two classic derivative sauces from velouté are supreme and allemande sauces. Supreme sauce turns up more often in dishes because it requires only the addition of heavy cream, whereas the classic recipe for allemande requires adding heavy cream, lemon, salt, white pepper and egg yolks to the base velouté sauce. The addition of the cream gives the supreme sauce its white coloring, adding it to our category of white sauces. The nuttiness from the blond roux and the savory flavors from the chicken stock combined with the richness from the cream make this white sauce ideal for poultry and seafood dishes.

In our discussion of types of white sauces and their applications, we should touch on aïoli. Mayonnaise is considered one of the oldest sauces created and has been used as a base sauce for centuries. Aïoli, like mayonnaise, is an emulsion sauce. Emulsion sauces are characterized by small fat globules that are suspended in water-soluble compounds. Common ingredients used in aïoli are egg yolks and mustard, because both have emulsifying properties that help keep the oils in suspension creating a white, creamy, mayonnaise texture. Other ingredients found in a traditional aïoli are lemon juice, garlic and olive oil. Aïoli is most commonly served with seafood dishes, but with a little creativity, it can enhance a wide assortment of applications.

Modern interpretations

Béchamel and velouté sauces, by nature, are quality sauces with a great foundation of flavor. Adding a host of unique ingredients can develop distinctive derivative sauces that are sure to please the most discerning consumer.

Most recently, we’ve seen the addition of ethnic flavors in derivative sauces. Mexican cheeses, such as asadero and Oaxaca, give béchamel some ethnic flair. Technically considered a Mornay-style sauce, adding cheese or a combination of cheeses is a great way to add flavor and variety to this classic sauce.

Blue-vein cheeses, such as Gorgonzola and Roquefort, bring the béchamel sauce to an entirely new level. Top a black-pepper-crusted strip steak with a Gorgonzola cream sauce and prepare yourself for a fabulous flavor roller coaster that marries perfectly with a bold, spicy, red wine. Remember—when using cheese in a sauce, make sure it has good melt characteristics.

Chile varieties, such as chipotle and jalapeño, added to crème sauce or Mornay sauce, brings the béchamel to a variety of ethnic-flavored applications. Adding the smoky, brown flavors and the heat of the chipotle to béchamel creates a sauce that makes a delightful topping for pasta or to accent fish or poultry. The fresh, green flavors from the jalapeño, in combination with the Mexican cheeses in the Mornay-style sauce, can add some ethnic flair to just about any dish.

Processing the fine points

Industrial sauce manufacturers have continued to strive to create authentic, high-quality sauces for both foodservice and retail companies. To manufacture a sauce, such as a derivative sauce from béchamel, the challenges become much greater than mixing a roux in a saucepan. A few of those obstacles include functionality, flavor and cost.

Like chef-run restaurants, industrial manufacturers have to produce consistent, quality sauces. One of the biggest challenges an industrial manufacturer faces is being able to deliver an ideal product to points all across the country. In order to accomplish this feat, developers need to add functionality to the sauce to help it survive through a freeze/thaw process or a hot-fill system. Product designers will commonly add modified food starches to maintain viscosity through freeze/thaw and other harsh conditions.

Once a manufacturer has tackled the issues of functionality, they have to consider the importance of maintaining a consistent flavor. For sauces such as béchamel and velouté, flavor is everything. Roux is the thickener for these sauces, but it also adds a tremendous amount of flavor. Roux gives sauces buttery, nutty notes that add another layer of flavor—another dimension—to the final sauce. The longer the roux is cooked, the more, and more-intense, nutty, brown-butter flavors that surface.

A white sauce made without roux as a thickener delivers more of a creamy dairy profile and lacks some of the functional attributes of a roux-based white sauce. When well crafted, both can be delightful sauces. But, understanding the final applications for the sauce will determine which type of white sauce to use.

White sauces that are made without roux tend to be lighter in body, as well as lighter on the palate. They’re commonly used as pasta sauces, or in dishes made à la minute by using cream to deglaze a pan and reducing it to a sauce consistency. Such white sauces can be thickened with food starches, such as corn starch, or by reducing the cream and adding egg yolks—similar to how an Alfredo sauce would be made in the kitchen.

White sauces made with roux have a heavier body and are comparatively much more stable. A common use for white sauce made with roux is white lasagna. During the baking process, the white sauce binds with the other ingredients and helps it hold its shape. The functionality that the roux gives the white sauce allows other ingredients, including liquids, to be added to the sauce to make derivative sauces.

Industrial manufacturers work to replicate the flavor and functionality of roux in sauces by using a combination of industrially manufactured roux and functional ingredients, such as modified food starches. Food starches give a translucent appearance to white sauce. The starch granule swells, giving viscosity to the sauce, but can’t reflect light on its own. But adding some roux to the mix helps manufacturers achieve a happy medium.

The unspoken truth in manufacturing any type of sauce is to achieve the highest quality at the lowest price. Developers have several options on how to control the cost of dairy when manufacturing white sauces. One particular option is cream replacers or cream alternatives. Cream replacers come in several basic forms: powder, liquid or liquid in a concentrated form.

Powders are popular alternatives that have their own pros and cons. Powders provide advantages for several reasons. First, from a cost perspective, the manufacturer is not shipping water. The user reconstitutes a powder with water on-site to provide the dairy component for the sauce, thus saving valuable shipping costs. However, powders do have some disadvantages. Oftentimes, they don’t deliver the richness of cream and leave product designers looking for cream top notes to enhance the flavor; those developers might, in many instances, have to add more butter to deliver those cream attributes. Powders also go through a spray-drying process that can deliver a “cooked” note to the final product. It is important to find the right combination of powders to optimize the final product.

Another option is a fluid dairy alternative, either in a concentrated or standard-strength liquid form. The main advantage of this option is the dairy alternative is in its natural state. For example, at Darifair, Jacksonville, FL, we have created the Identical line of cream alternative products, real dairy products that have been given the “Real®” seal by Dairy Management Inc.™ The ingredient’s fat percentage is reduced to cut cost, but its texture and mouthfeel is indistinguishable from straight heavy cream. We’ve also developed a version to partially replace 31% cream in sauce and soup manufacturing. Successful costreduced matched formulations utilizing the cream alternatives have seen up to a 10% reduction in overall dairy. Cream replacers also help product designers cut the fat content of sauces. Our company’s cream replacer is very retort stable and will not brown at the harsh temperatures that are required in a retort system.

White sauces have been around for centuries, and it’s easy to understand why. The white sauce helped in the development of sauce cookery and has continued to evolve over time with an amazing variety of derivative sauces and unique applications. The ingenuity and creativity of industrial sauce manufacturers have made it possible for restaurants to utilize the white sauce in many of its wonderful forms. Taking a step back and looking at the significant role that béchamel sauce has played in the development of modern cuisine makes chefs and food scientists alike appreciate its simple beauty.

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