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Exploring Sauces: The 10 White Sauces of World Cuisine

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Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes, one ingredient at a time.

There are so many white sauces out there from so many different locales. Let's explore the origins of the world's palest condiments.

There are so many white sauces out there from so many different locales. Let's explore the origins of the world's palest condiments.

Several weeks ago, I wrote an article on red sauces. My friend and yours, Billybuc (aka Bill Holland), remarked in the comments that he prefers white sauce. Well, the gauntlet was thrown down, and I seized the challenge with enthusiasm. You, my friends, are reaping the benefits.

Why do we sauce? Centuries ago (in the days before refrigeration), sauces were used to camouflage meats and vegetables of questionable freshness (that's a bold understatement). Today, lack of refrigeration is no longer a concern, but sauces are still used, not as a disguise, but to contribute to the flavors and textures of our foods.

White sauces appear in many world cuisines—in pasta dishes, as dips, and even in tacos and barbecues. But don't assume that white means bland. These 10 sauces are rich and full of amazing flavors. Let's explore their origins and learn how to make some of them for friends and family.

Alabama white barbecue sauce

Alabama white barbecue sauce

1. Alabama White Barbecue Sauce

When you think of barbecue, what geographic area comes to mind? Some people enjoy Carolina sauce, which is sweet with brown sugar and apple cider. Memphis-style barbecue sauce is thick and sassy with tomatoes and molasses. Kansas City adds liquid smoke for lots of umami flavor. And then there is Texas sauce with spicy-hot crushed red pepper. Alabama white sauce is not as well-known, and it’s time to rectify that oversight.

Almost 100 years ago, "Big" Bob Gibson turned the barbecue world upside-down with his unique creation. You won’t find a speck of tomato or mustard in his "cue." Mayonnaise, salt, pepper, and a big hit of vinegar meld together for a tame-looking white barbecue sauce with a bold punch of flavor.

Alfredo pasta sauce

Alfredo pasta sauce

2. Alfredo Sauce

Legend has it that 110 years ago, Alfredo di Lelio became the proud father of a new baby boy. His wife, Ines, was exhausted from a difficult labor and delivery and was in need of a fortifying meal. Alfredo combined sweet butter, savory spices, and good cheeses to create a rich sauce.

Malia is the creator of the blog AspiringSmallTownGirl. Her introduction caught my attention: "I live in a small town in the Pacific Northwest." Ohmygoodness! We're almost neighbors (only 30 miles separate us). Her alfredo is rich and luxurious; it would make Mr. di Lelio proud.

Aioli

Aioli

3. Aioli

Aioli (eye-YO-lee) is a rich, thick garlic sauce. The first description of aioli was by Pliny the Elder in his book Naturalis Historia, a massive tome that details "all ancient knowledge." The sauce appears in the cooking of both Provence, France and Catalonia, Spain. Both locations boast that theirs is the first and the best.

Many cooks create an "aioli-like" sauce by stirring finely minced garlic into prepared mayonnaise, but this is not a true aioli. The real-deal contains just three ingredients—garlic, salt, and oil. Carmen has the perfect recipe for this "world's oldest sauce" with a mortar and pestle, just like Pliny the Elder.

Béchamel Sauce

Béchamel Sauce

4. Béchamel Sauce

The creamy white sauce in a spinach lasagna and the cheese sauce for macaroni and cheese both begin with a béchamel. Of the five mother sauces, this is indeed the simplest. It's an easy one for the beginner. Only three ingredients are required—milk, flour, and butter. The key to success in the creation of this sauce is preparing the roux (rhymes with Winnie the Pooh).

So, now that you have seen the technique, here is the recipe.

Ingredients

  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Freshly grated nutmeg, to taste (optional)

Directions

  1. Heat the milk in a saucepan. While it is warming, melt the butter in another pan.
  2. Add the flour and stir to create a white roux. Slowly add the heated milk in increments to the roux, whisking all the while.
  3. When the desired thickness and smoothness is achieved, bring the mix to a boil. Reduce the heat and stir frequently for 3 to 5 more minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Garlic Pizza Sauce

Garlic Pizza Sauce

5. Garlic Pizza Sauce

Ok, so this isn’t actually a sauce with a verified history. I have no idea when someone first opted for white sauce instead of red on their pizza. Perhaps it was a harried parent who needed a quick dinner for a hungry family. On the other hand, it might have been a cook with an over-abundance of white sauce, a handful of garlic, and a creative mind.

Nevertheless, I must tell you that the most wonderful pizza I have ever had in my life was in 2001 in Venice. We were touring the city when we were assailed by a sudden cloudburst. We ducked into a small, family-run restaurant to escape. We were hungry, so we ordered the house pizza of the day. What was presented to us was unlike any pizza we had ever eaten in the United States (which, by the way, is not the birthplace of pizza). There was no red sauce and no cheese. But what we did have was a thin, cracker-like crust brushed with olive oil, a layer of roasted/charred thinly-sliced vegetables (onions, eggplant, and zucchini), and a drizzle of a garlic-laden creamy white sauce on top. Heaven on a plate!

I don’t know how the proprietor made that particular garlic sauce, but I think this one by BakedByRachel is pretty darned close.

Eggs Benedict with hollandaise sauce

Eggs Benedict with hollandaise sauce

6. Hollandaise

This sauce, like the aioli, is also an emulsion.

In the words of Luther, "what does this mean?" Simply put, two opposing forces (water and oil) are magically combined. The droplets of fat in the butter are suspended in the watery portion of the eggs. Actually, it’s not magic. A fast-moving whisk provides the abracadabra. Don’t worry. I’ll show you a video to guide you to that emulsified bliss.

Ingredients

  • 6 oz. (3/4 cup) unsalted butter
  • 2 large egg yolks
  • 1 Tbs. fresh lemon juice; more as needed
  • Kosher salt

Directions (From Fine Cooking)

  • Melt the butter in a 2-quart saucepan over medium heat and let stand for a few minutes off the heat. Don’t stir it—you want the milky solids to fall to the bottom and the clear yellow butterfat to float to the top. Skim off any milk solids still on the surface with a spoon. Pour the butterfat into a measuring cup, leaving the milky-watery layer behind. Keep warm.
  • Fill a 3-quart saucepan with 1 inch of water and bring to a simmer over medium heat; then reduce the heat to low.
  • Put the egg yolks, lemon juice, 1/4 tsp. salt, and 2 Tbs. water in a 2-quart stainless-steel bowl that will fit over the saucepan without touching the water. Put the bowl over the pan and whisk vigorously until the mixture is thick and frothy and the whisk leaves a trail in the mixture, 2 to 5 minutes. Scrape around the sides of the bowl with a silicone spatula from time to time so that the yolks don’t stick or overcook and curdle.
  • Remove the bowl from the heat and whisk for another 30 seconds, letting the eggs cool down a bit.
  • Lay a folded kitchen towel over a cool saucepan off the heat and nestle the bowl into the pan to hold the bowl steady. Slowly drizzle in the warm clarified butter, whisking constantly, until all the butter is added and the sauce is smooth and creamy. (If at any point the sauce breaks and looks curdled, stop adding the butter and see Hollandaise Troubleshooting, opposite).
  • Adjust salt and lemon juice to taste. Serve immediately.
Queso Blanco

Queso Blanco

7. Queso Blanco

This queso blanco (white cheese) sauce does not rely on processed American cheese (thank goodness!) This is real food, smooth and creamy with pops of flavor from fresh jalapenos, garlic, and minced onion. It's good on tortilla chips, drizzled on top of your tacos and enchiladas, or as a dip for vegetables.

Note that some commenters complained that their sauce was grainy in texture. In my experience, this occurs if one uses pre-shredded cheese. The shreds-in-a-bag are always coated with a dry powder so that the bits of cheese don't stick together. That's great for appearance, but not do much for cooking. Grate your own cheese and don't overheat the sauce. Low and slow is the way to go.

Shawarma White Sauce

Shawarma White Sauce

8. Shawarma White Sauce

If you have ever eaten a gyro, you have enjoyed this sauce. Yogurt, garlic, mint, and tahini (sesame paste) are the signature flavors of Middle Eastern foods. GimmeDelicious has found the perfect balance of ingredients and provides the beautiful photograph above. However, the author of that blog states that all of the ingredients can be placed in a food processor. I disagree.

The sharp blades will pulverize the herbs so much that within seconds they become a watery mass and your resulting sauce will be thin and sad.

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup Greek yogurt
  • juice of 1/2 lime (about 1 tablespoon)
  • 1 tablespoon tahini
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 2 tablespoons fresh dill, chopped
  • 5 mint leaves, shredded fine
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

Instructions

  1. Combine yogurt, lime juice, tahini, and garlic cloves the bowl of a food processor. Process until garlic is finely minced.
  2. Stir in remaining ingredients. Cover and store in refrigerator at least one hour for flavors to meld. Keeps for up to 2 weeks.
Tartar sauce

Tartar sauce

9. Tartar Sauce

. . . is also known as tartare sauce in the UK, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa. That’s the same name given to the dish of raw minced beef. Are you confused? Well, according to Rare Bits: Unusual Origins of Popular Recipes, Patricia Bunning Stevens (p. 156)

"Beef Tartare—finely minced lean raw beef—became fashionable in France in the nineteenth century. It was named for the Tartars or Mongols who had terrorized eastern Europe in the days of Genghis Kahn. Beef Tartare was usually served as it is now, with a bevy of garnishes, including a piquant sauce with a mayonnaise base that came to be called sauce Tartare or Tartar Sauce.

There are so many different recipes for tartar sauce. Most rely on mayonnaise as the base, a few add a dollop of sour cream. Dill or capers? Sweet relish or dill pickles? With so many choices, how can we select the ultimate, the absolute best? Well, I theorized that the man who makes the perfect crab cake will (also) know how to make the perfect tartar sauce as well.

That man is Tom Douglas, an American executive chef, restaurateur, author, and radio talk show host who lives and works in Seattle, Washington. His credentials are amazing, including but not limited to numerous James Beard awards, Food Network Iron Chef, and Bon Appetit Magazine award for Restaurateur of the Year.

Yes, I'm his biggest fan and thrilled that in the next year he will be opening a new restaurant just 5 miles from where I live. Why am I telling you all of this? He has experience, authority, and some real cooking chops, so when he shares a recipe, I take it seriously.

Zabaglione

Zabaglione

10. Zabaglione

We've explored from A to Z. Before we leave this topic, I'm going to give you a break from salty, savory, cheese-y, garlic-y sauces and dips. Your final white sauce recipe is a sweet dessert.

The author of "365 Easy Italian Recipes" gives us this recipe (and 364 more) from his Mama's kitchen.

Ingredients

  • 6 egg yolks
  • 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup sweet Marsala wine

Instructions

  1. Whisk the egg yolks and sugar together in the top of a double boiler set over simmering water.
  2. Continue to whisk gently until mixture is barely warm; then add Marsala and continue to whisk vigorously until mixture is thick and foamy, 5 to 6 minutes total.
  3. Serve immediately in martini glasses. Makes a wonderful topping for fresh berries.

© 2018 Linda Lum

Comments

Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on January 15, 2019:

Linda

I thought some more about the sauce. The best way to make it us using crushed garlic.

Just throw the whole lot into a pot (I did say I can't get enough if it) and mix with a spoon then let it sit in the fridge for a day, delicious!!

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on January 15, 2019:

Lawrence, thank you so much for your kind words. I'm glad that I was able to help you remember good times.

Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on January 14, 2019:

Linda

Totally agree on the 'Shawerma white sauce'. Gently blended in a blender (or do the garlic that way and mix the rest using a whisk!

Absolutely love it, I know it as 'Tehine sauce' and on my first trip through Turkey (four weeks) it was the only food I could eat, and I still love it!

Lawrence

The recipe brought good memories back.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on December 22, 2018:

Ines thank you so very much for your comments which add greatly to the history of Alfredo sauce. I appreciate your taking the time to write and fill us in on your family history. (I'm also glad to know that I got the story right).

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on December 22, 2018:

Pamela, you always have a kind word to say. I mean this sincerely when I say that I appreciate your presence here on Hub pages. Tartar sauce is probably the easiest of the white sauces (no cooking) and honestly, once you make your own, you'll never resort to buying the stuff in a bottle again.

Thank you again, and I wish you a blessed Christmas.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on December 22, 2018:

This is a great collection off white sauces. I never heard of the Alabama sauce. I think Queso Blanco looks good and it is new to me also. I have always bought tarter sauce instead of making my own, but it is also simple.Alfredo is always a winner.

I like how simple most of the recipes are with so few ingredients. These sauce pictures made me hungry! I think you may have outdone yourself on these sauces Linda.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on December 19, 2018:

Eric, love to you my friend. You make me smile.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on December 19, 2018:

Linda you Diva of life through food. I get recipe and "how to" articles about food. I have these two heroes in my mind constantly. There is a feller by the last name Holland and this lady friend with a last name Lum.

They use food and writing to teach me about life. Funny but the writing guy teaches me about the food of life and the cooker lady teaches me how to write.

I am going to write some legal discovery stuff for Superior court now, but I will do it with your recipe for Gespactho in hand.

Just by being my friend you add the perfect spice.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on December 19, 2018:

Eric it is said that herring is an acquired taste. I'm not certain how many years I have left on this earth, but I don't think I want to spend them attempting to acquire a taste for pickled fish in a sweetened sour cream sauce. Sorry, just ain't gonna happen.

Gabe would have fun at my house. I'm always up for watching a reality TV cooking show. And I am convinced that any ranch or salsa that you created would be far superior to store-bought.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on December 19, 2018:

Manatita, I believe that our will be a wet Christmas, not a white one. Rain showers are in the forecast and that suits me just fine. Our younger daughter will be driving up from Salem on Christmas Day and I would dread the thought of her having to make a go of it in the snow. (It's a 3-hour drive when the weather is good).

Blessings to you this Season.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on December 19, 2018:

LInda I did not get notice of this. So am just going to look you up from now on.

I tried the Alfredo, tartar and gyros deal this week. I would fully lose on my sons favorite cooking shows. (I know it is weird that Gabe likes cooking reality shows)

I am pretty good at making my own potato chips sans anything but I think I could do better than supermarket "Ranch Dip". And could I do better than my store bought Salsa?

(but it is a little bit woo woo that before reading this I was trying them)

Oh yea, about that Herring with a cream sauce in the bottle -- hmm.

manatita44 from london on December 19, 2018:

I thought at first that Alfredo was 110. Ha ha. Great sauces that you share with us here and they are all white or creamy. Looking forward to some snow soon, perhaps. Much Peace to you and dear ones this festive Season.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on December 18, 2018:

Shauna, that's a good question (about the bechamel). I have the patience of an aphid and so I always heat my milk in the microwave (just a quick 1-minute zap) so that it doesn't take so long for the roux and milk combination to do their thing.

Yes, Bill is a handy person to have around. You, he, Eric, Flourish, and Mary have given me much inspiration for my articles.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on December 18, 2018:

Wesman, the "powder" on prepackaged shredded cheese is corn starch. It doesn't hurt you, but, as Linda said, it affects the texture when melted. All the chefs I watch on TV also advise grating your own cheese, for the very reason Linda stated in this article.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on December 18, 2018:

Hi, Rachel and Merry Christmas to you as well. Later this week we will be making Alfredo sauce and tossing it with homemade tagliatelle.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on December 18, 2018:

Good morning Wesman, and so happy that you came by for a visit. I don't know if one can actually purchase bottled Alabama sauce, but with the recipe provided, I'm sure that you can make your own. Give it a try.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on December 18, 2018:

I too, love white sauces. I'm glad Bill made the comment/suggestion.

Linda, what is the purpose of heating milk for the bechamel sauce? I've made beaucoup bechamel sauces in my lifetime and have never heated the milk. My sauce comes out just fine.

Rachel L Alba from Every Day Cooking and Baking on December 18, 2018:

I love white sauces too. There's nothing like alfredo sauce especially. Thanks for sharing all of these wonderful sauces.

Merry Christmas

Wesman Todd Shaw from Kaufman, Texas on December 18, 2018:

I'm really pretty saddened that I know nothing of Alabama sauce. I'd not even heard of that. That's something I would totally purchase were I to see it. I'll look harder. I'm more into sauces nowadays than I once had been.

Queso blanco and Alfredo, of course, are things I'm familiar with. But I live in Texas. I still don't see much Queso blanco. I'd like to see more of it.

GRAINS OF POWDER ON PRE-SHRED CHEESE?

Well that's not cool, in my opinion. Good to know though.

YES! I have also added capers to store bought tartar sauce. I did that kind of intuitively, and felt like it worked out wonderfully!

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on December 18, 2018:

Flourish, yes I do try to recreate things I've enjoyed in my kitchen, and that delicious pizza was indeed one of them. I'm "close" but will never really get it 100 percent. I think much of the flavor comes from the wood-burning oven that's as hot as Hades.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on December 18, 2018:

Bill, I'm shocked and awed (in a good way). Now, am I supposed to guess which one you hadn't heard of (or tried)?

More stormy weather on the way my friend. Stay safe.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on December 18, 2018:

I'm an Alfredo kind of guy. You probably guessed that about me. lol This one was encouraging. I have actually heard of seven of these, and eaten six of them. Growth, my friend! :)

FlourishAnyway from USA on December 17, 2018:

This was most divine and I can almost taste several of those sauces. You have me thinking about spinach lasagna now.

I’ve never heard of the white barbecue sauce but that is really intriguing. It’s so different from place to place. I’m partial to Carolina style, of course, having grown up there.

Have you ever tried to recreate that good pizza you had in Italy? My dad and I do that as a hobby. If there is an incredible restaurant dish, he will ask questions of the server about what is in it. Usually they don’t divulge too much but will provide a few hints. Then we go home and experiment.