White Sauce: The Mother Sauce

Source: Good Housekeeping (April, 1917)

A key to successfully making many hundred-year-old dishes (as well as many modern ones)  is the ability to make a good white sauce.  An article in a century-old magazine called it the mother sauce. Here’s some excerpts from that article:

The Mother Sauce

The mother sauce is merely a very-well-made white sauce. But tremendous importance is attached to the words well-made. When it is done, it should be creamy, ivory-tinted, smooth, a velvety liquid that clings, but does not stifle, blending its delicate flavor with and invariably enhancing that of the croquettes or vegetables with which it is served. But though the sauce be light and ethereal when rightly made, the making of it must be undertaken with concentration and seriousness.

Such a sauce is not often encountered – more’s the pity – but it is quite as simple to prepare as the less pleasing variety, and because of its many uses its secret should be mastered by every housekeeper. Thin, it provides the most delicious of dressings for vegetables, omelets, fish, and other dishes, or it forms the base of the most delicate of our cream soups and souffles. Thick, it is the foundation for the best of our croquettes,  souffles, and dishes au gratin. And, with it as a background, any number  of variations may be produced by the addition of flavors, herbs, or other condiments.

A perfect white sauce is made in the following manner. Mix together to a smooth paste two tablespoonfuls of butter and two of flour. Cook to a smooth, bubbling, semi-liquid consistency over a hot fire. Do not allow the mixture to brown, but see that the flour is well cooked. Now add slowly and carefully a cupful and a half of cold milk. Stir constantly until the boiling point is reached. Then season with a half-teaspoonful of salt and a dash of white pepper. If you have stirred the sauce conscientiously, it will be as smooth and delicate as you can possible desire. No straining will be necessary; but it will do no harm to pass the sauce through a fine sieve.

An unusually rich cream sauce is sometimes required. In that case make the sauce half milk and half cream, and it will be extraordinarily good.

Good Housekeeping (April, 1917)


33 thoughts on “White Sauce: The Mother Sauce

  1. I’ve never heard a White Sauce called a Mother sauce before – but actually it’s a good name because it’s so core to so much cooking. I too use that recipe …. but mine can be a little lumpy because I’m so often impatient with standing there stirring all the time!

  2. That’s exactly how I make mine. Equal parts butter and flour, and enough milk (or milk and cream) to make it “just right.” Why improve on a perfect recipe?

  3. This recipe will out do any canned cream soups on the market! It is interesting to read on how to remove little lumps…. that was a real no no back then to have lumps in a white sauce or in gravy. Enjoyed reading the recipe.😊

    1. I found it interesting that the old directions mentioned straining as one possible way to ensure smooth white sauce. I don’t worry about a few small lumps when I make white sauce, but I’ve occasionally had disasters with lots of lumps, and ended up straining it. I considered the white sauce a failure on those occasions – maybe I should have instead thought that I was ensuring that I had a smooth and delicate sauce.

  4. This brings back some pleasant memories of making macaroni and cheese for my kids when they were little. I made a white sauce and then melted a chunk of sharp cheddar cheese into it. Tossed in some elbow macaroni and then baked it. One of their favorite meals ~ they all turned their noses up at macaroni and cheese from a box!

  5. Smooth and delicate, not mine. Sounds so interesting and can be used for many of the dishes I already make, giving them a more subtle taste and feel. I am going to print this post to enable a longer visit and sharing. 🍀

    1. I agree – White sauce was very popular back then. I can’t even begin to count the number of times that I’ve made recipes for this blog that called for white sauce.

  6. The only thing that’s different from this recipe and my own is that when I can be bothered, I heat the milk before adding it. It makes avoiding the dreaded lumps so much easier. Oh, and I often add a bay leaf and a few whole peppercorns for delicate flavour enhancement. I love the term ‘mother sauce’, I hadn’t heard it before.

    1. Thanks for the suggestion about heating the milk first. It’s always tricky to make smooth white sauce, and I’m going to give this a try.

  7. What a great find and once again, a timeless recipe. I also use this as the base for cream based or cheese soups, but adding chicken broth to the flour/butter mixture and then when smooth adding the milk.

  8. This gave me a smile. I hadn’t realized that the way I make white sauce is from that era. I think that says a lot about the simple and successful recipes that travel through the ages.

  9. We actually devoted an entire home ec class to learning to make the perfect white sauce! And honestly, there are certain recipes that really benefit from knowing how to make a proper white sauce.

  10. When I was a little girl in the 1950’s, I used to watch my mother make a cream sauce for such items as “salmon wiggle,” creamed chipped beef on toast, cream toast, and of course, homemade macaroni and cheese. I was intrigued to see liquid-y milk slowly transformed into a luscious, smooth, creamy sauce. I don’t think my mom ever had a lumpy sauce, maybe because she cooked it low & slow.

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