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Exploring Sauces: The 10 White Sauces of World Cuisine

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 sauce

Alfredo 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.

Did I mention milk and a roux, half-and-half, or heavy cream? None of those were a part of the original Alfredo sauce. Authentic fettuccini Alfredo is how the sauce truly should be made.

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).

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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

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