How to make all-in-one white sauce
1. This speeded-up version is even easier than using a packet. The quantities given will make enough for 4 people. You will need 15 fl oz (425 ml) milk, which can be infused to give a subtle background flavour to the sauce (you just need to place a bay leaf, a blade of mace, 10 whole black peppercorns, a slice of onion, and a few chopped parsley stalks in a saucepan with the milk). Bring the milk up slowly to simmering point, remove from the heat and leave it to infuse until the milk is cold.
2. It is very important to ensure that the milk is absolutely cold, because if it isn't the sauce will go lumpy, so leave it to cool completely. Strain it back into the saucepan, discarding any flavourings you have used, and add ¾ oz (20 g) flour and 1½ oz (40 g) butter. Always use plain or sauce flour and not self-raising.
3. Bring the sauce gradually up to simmering point, whisking continuously with a balloon whisk. The starch grains in the flour burst and collapse at boiling point, and become gelatinous. If a good deal of vigorous whisking is going on, these collapsed granules get distributed evenly throughout resulting in a smooth, thickened sauce, exactly the same as a traditional roux method sauce. There's only one other rule apart from determined whisking, and that is the fat content: it's the flour blended with the fat that ensures lump-free results, so never attempt to blend hot liquid and flour without the presence of fat, as this is what causes lumps. It is all quite straightforward, a case of once you understand the rules, lumps should never occur. But so what? If you do happen to slip up on the rules or get distracted, then don't forget why sieves were invented.
4. The sauce never looks thick enough when it first comes up to simmering point. Do not panic but be patient, as it will continue to thicken as the raw taste of the flour is cooked out over the gentlest possible heat for 5 minutes. So remember when you use flour in a sauce, although it will thicken to a smooth creaminess very quickly, it then has to be cooked. The only exception is if you're going to continue to cook the sauce in the oven, as in a lasagne, for example, which means you can cut this initial cooking to 2 or 3 minutes.
5. If you want to make the sauce in advance, the best way to prevent a skin from forming, place some cling film directly over the surface, then either keep it warm by placing it over a pan of barely simmering water or, if you want to make it a long way ahead, re-heat it using the same method and don't remove the cling film until you are ready to serve. If you find it has thickened a little, this is easy to rectify by adding a little more liquid – milk, stock, or cream – to bring it back to the right consistency.
6. Now that you have a basic sauce it opens the doors to many variations such as adding a squeeze of lemon juice and some chopped fresh dill to be served with fish, or chopped fresh parsley to accompany fish cakes. Alternatively you can make a lighter sauce by not using all milk but instead using half stock – or even half wine or cider. Also if you were poaching or baking smoked haddock or any other fish in milk for instance, you could halve the quantity of milk in the recipe and replace the other half with the fish poaching liquid – provided it's completely cold.
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