Basic White Sauce Recipe photo by Taste of Home

Basic White Sauce

Total Time
Prep/Total Time: 10 min.
Making bechamel opens up a world of possibilities. Master the technique with this simple white sauce recipe and you'll be cooking rich, creamy dishes in no time.

Updated: Jun. 27, 2024

White sauce—or bechamel, if you use its French name—is one of the five mother sauces taught in culinary schools. Its simplicity makes it a blank canvas for creativity; once you’ve mastered it, you can go wild and add ingredients like spices and cheese. It’s quick and easy, and forms the backbone of everything from our best mac and cheese recipes to scalloped potatoes with ham.

What is white sauce?

The main ingredients for a basic white sauce recipe are butter, flour and milk or cream. That’s it. Make a roux with the butter and flour, slowly add the liquid and stir until it thickens. A pinch of salt and pepper (and often nutmeg) is all it needs for seasoning. When it’s thin and pourable, drizzle it over grilled fish or steamed asparagus; when it’s fully thickened, it forms the base for dishes like biscuits and sausage gravy or classic creamed spinach.

Bolster the sauce with cheese and bake it in with some chicken manicotti. Mix in spices like curry powder and serve the sauce over roasted cauliflower or chicken. Mix it with ham and make ham croquettes. The options for enhancing and using white sauce go on and on.

White Sauce Ingredients

  • Butter: Fat is the first component of a roux, which is used to thicken sauces and soups. A white sauce recipe typically uses butter because it imparts a little flavor.
  • Flour: This second component of roux turns the melted butter into a thick paste. Be sure to let it cook for two to three minutes before you start to add the milk, otherwise you might get a hint of raw flour in the finished sauce. Make a gluten-free bechamel by replacing the all-purpose flour with a gluten-free baking flour that includes xanthan gum.
  • Milk: Use at least 2% milk to thicken the sauce. Whole milk, half-and-half or heavy cream will move it even further up the thickness spectrum.
  • Salt: White sauce has such a mild flavor that a little salt goes a long way. If you use salted butter, you may not want additional salt in your white sauce.
  • White pepper: A dash of white pepper adds zip without altering the sauce’s creamy color. Black pepper will show up as small specks, which may not matter if you plan to add other ingredients to the basic white sauce recipe.

Directions

Step 1: Make the roux

Overhead shot of a small saucepan; melt butter over medium heat; induction; marble background;TMB Studio

In a small saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat.

Overhead shot of whisk in flour; salt and pepper until smooth; spoon; induction; marble background;TMB Studio

Whisk in the flour, salt and pepper until a smooth paste forms.

Step 2: Add the milk

Overhead shot of gradually whisk in milk; induction; marble background;TMB Studio

Gradually whisk in the milk. Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring constantly.

Overhead shot of cook and stir basic white sauce until thickened; spoon; induction; marble background;TMB Studio

Cook and stir the sauce until it has thickened, one to two minutes.

Editor’s Tip: When adding the milk, whisk constantly to distribute the roux evenly, allowing it to break down and thicken before pouring in more liquid. If the sauce seems thin at first, don’t worry; just keep stirring and use enough heat that it bubbles even as you stir. This sauce will continue to thicken after you remove it from the heat.

Basic White Sauce Ft24 13884 St 0306 3TMB STUDIO

White Sauce Recipe Variations

  • Mornay or cheesy white sauce: After the basic sauce has thickened, reduce the heat and fold in 1/4 to 3/4 cup of shredded cheese. Gruyere is a popular choice, but white cheddar, smoked Gouda, provolone, Swiss or Parmesan cheese also work well without altering the sauce’s pale color. A dash of freshly grated nutmeg adds a warm complexity to the otherwise mild sauce. Cook and stir just until the cheese is melted.
  • Veloute sauce: For a dairy-free sauce, substitute a light-colored chicken, turkey, fish or vegetable broth for the milk. This is technically a different mother sauce, which is as velvety as its French name.
  • Brown sauce: For a darker dairy-free sauce, substitute beef broth for the milk. This quick sauce won’t have the same complexity as espagnole (a mother sauce that starts with a dark roux and mixes in vegetables), but it will form a thick brown gravy.
  • Mustard sauce: When you’re done following the basic white sauce recipe, stir in about a tablespoon of Dijon mustard for a little kick. If you add too much, balance it out with a pinch or two of sugar before serving it over salmon, pork chops or roasted vegetables.
  • Curry sauce: Give white sauce a flavor boost with spices; just add them to the roux when you stir in the salt and pepper. For a curried sauce, try 1/2 teaspoon of curry powder and a dash of ground ginger. Prepackaged jars of this spice blend can be rather generic, so you’ll seriously upgrade your sauce if you make your own curry powder.

Can you make basic white sauce ahead of time?

It’s best to make a small batch of white sauce that you can use straightaway. If you need to keep the white sauce warm until serving time, press a piece of storage wrap or waxed paper over the surface to keep a skin from forming, and wrap the saucepan in a towel.

If you do end up with leftovers, cool the sauce completely and store it in a sealed container in the refrigerator for up to three to four days. To reheat the sauce, warm it gently in a small saucepan over low heat, whisking constantly, until it’s smooth. If it thickens too much, stir in a tablespoon or so of warm milk.

Can you freeze white sauce?

Freezing and thawing can cause white sauce to separate, so the freezer should be your last resort. When sealed tightly in a freezer-safe container, with storage wrap or waxed paper pressed directly against the surface, the sauce will keep for up to six months.

Once defrosted, gently heat the sauce while stirring to try to bring the elements back together. It can remain gritty after freezing, so it’s best used in a recipe that hides its texture, like bechamel lasagna, rather than as a drizzled sauce.

White Sauce Tips

Basic White Sauce TMB STUDIO

How do you fix lumps in white sauce?

Avoid a lumpy sauce by pouring the milk into the roux in a thin, steady stream, whisking the whole time. If you add the milk too quickly, the roux will stay clumped together. If clumps seem to be growing, stop adding milk and stir until they smooth out, bumping up the heat slightly as needed to keep the pan hot and the sauce bubbling.

If you discover lumps in your creamy sauce after you’ve removed it from the stove, set it back over low heat and whisk until it starts to bubble again. Add a tablespoon or two of milk if it’s too thick, and keep whisking gently until you work out the lumps.

What do you do if your sauce breaks?

Don’t worry if your sauce breaks; it’s a common problem, even with egg-free sauces. Save a broken sauce early on, before it fully separates, by quickly whisking in a teaspoon of liquid. For white sauce, use a little warm milk.

If you add cheese to the sauce and it begins to seize up, immediately remove it from the heat and stir in a splash of white wine or lemon juice. The liquid and the acid help separate the cheese’s proteins, which tend to clump after the cheese reaches its melting point. This is why recipes like riesling and Swiss cheese fondue include acidic ingredients.

Watch how to Make Basic White Sauce

Basic White Sauce

Prep Time 10 min
Yield 1 cup

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • Dash white pepper
  • 1 cup 2% milk

Directions

  1. In a small saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Whisk in flour, salt and pepper until smooth. Gradually whisk in milk. Bring to a boil; cook and stir until thickened, 1-2 minutes.

Nutrition Facts

2 tablespoons: 51 calories, 4g fat (2g saturated fat), 12mg cholesterol, 81mg sodium, 3g carbohydrate (1g sugars, 0 fiber), 1g protein.

For years, I've used this smooth white sauce for pasta to make many dishes. The recipe can easily be doubled or tripled. —Lois Gelzer, Standish, Maine
Recipe Creator