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White sauce is a light-colored, usually tasteless sauce that is used to enhance the flavor of a wide variety of foods; sometimes salt or sugar may be added to give it the required taste. In the olden days, before refrigeration, such sauces were apparently used with impunity to disguise the rancid tastes of spoiled foodstuffs. In present times, this sauce is considered one the most essential bases, or mother sauces, of French cuisine.
The French appropriated and modified the white sauce in the 17th century from a similar sauce that was used in Italian cuisine. The first official mention of white sauce appears in Chef François Pierre La Varenne's 1651 edition of the gastronomic compilation Le Cuisiner François, or "The Cuisine of France." The sauce was called Béchamel sauce, after the French financier and courtier Louis de Béchameil, Marquis de Nointel.
In its very basic form, white sauce is prepared by mixing flour and butter and whisking the mixture into milk. To begin, milk is scalded and then set aside. The butter is melted in a pan on a low flame and the flour is folded in. The mixture is stirred to keep it smooth and care is taken to avoid browning the buttered flour.
This flour mix is then added to the scalded milk gradually, stirring the milk all the while to prevent the formation of lumps. It is also possible to make this sauce the other way around, by adding the milk gradually to the flour mix while whisking continuously. The smooth white sauce is allowed to come to boil and it is then simmered on low heat for a while. It is essential to keep stirring the sauce all this time so it doesn't stick to the pan or turn lumpy. When the desired sauce consistency or thickness is achieved, the sauce can be taken off the flame.
Béchamel sauce, which is called besciamella in Italian, can now be used to prepare a whole host of other types of sauces and dishes. One such sauce is Mornay sauce which is made by adding cheese to the mix. Some of the other sauces include the onion and cheese concoction Soubise sauce, and the crayfish, cream and butter combination known as Nantua sauce. White sauce is also used as a base in various soups, stews, gravies and casseroles.
It's just a good cooking skill to know how to do a basic white sauce. I learned fairly early on, and it's been a base for a lot of things. It's an excellent base for a curry sauce if all you have are onions and curry powder. Not very authentic, perhaps, but certainly tasty.
Making a white sauce is not difficult. The main thing the cook needs to do is slow down, read the recipe through and stay with the sauce on the stove. You can't walk away and leave it. That is a recipe for disaster. Just not a good idea.