The Swaptastics, Part One: Traditional Cream Sauce


Today, I’m starting an occasional series that ties together traditional cooking and healthy alternatives with an eye to budget friendliness.

My focus is on sauces, which can be brought together with very few ingredients, are incredibly versatile, and can make any dish extra special. As I’ve learned through puzzling with basic components, sauces can even be healthy, including the classic French Mother Sauce called Béchamel, a milk-based sauce with the texture and density of cream.

What is a Mother Sauce? The term was coined in the mid-19th century by Antonin Careme, one of the world’s first celebrity chefs*. Mother Sauces are essentially ‘parent’ sauces from which any other sauce can be created. This list was modified in the early 20th century by his successor, Auguste Escoffier*, but Béchamel remained firmly on the list.

Béchamel on its own is lovely as accompaniment to chicken or fish, but one of its more popular smaller sauces is cheese-based. There were few lessons which could get my students’ collective attention better than knowing they were about to make a cheese sauce. Through that, one can make a quick broccoli cheddar soup, fondue or Welsh rarebit, pizza base, or the ever-popular Mac and Cheese.

I modified the traditional recipe here, for ease of use as well as to minimize the number of costly aromatics, herbs and spices generally used.

Modified Béchamel Converted to a Four-Cheese Sauce

Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: ~10 minutes
Yield: 8 quarter cup/2 ounce servings


2 tablespoons of wheat, spelt or gluten-free flour
2 tablespoons of butter
1 pint of whole milk
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
Pepper* and Salt to taste

Cheese Sauce:
Yield from Béchamel sauce
1 teaspoon soy or Worcestershire sauce
1/4 teaspoon mustard powder or 1/2 teaspoon mustard
1 cup grated or cubed cheese of choice
Salt to taste



1. In a medium sauce pan, combine flour and butter. Cook for 1-2 minutes on medium-low heat, continuously stirring to ensure that the floury taste is cooked out and the mixture doesn’t burn. You want there to be little color change, as otherwise the color of the sauce will be affected. Remove from the heat and set aside.

2. Gently heat milk in a sauce pan. Milk burns very quickly, and it’s a big hassle to get the burnt remains out of a pan, so it’s important to warm the milk at a low temperature. Alternately, warm slightly, uncovered, in 10-second stages in the microwave.

3. Once warmed, slowly incorporate the milk into the butter-flour mixture and return to heat. Whisk continually to ensure that the ingredients combine completely. As you warm the sauce, it will begin to thicken.

4. Take the mixture off of the heat once it begins to resemble cream, strain if necessary and season it with onion powder, pepper and salt to taste. Should the sauce over thicken before use, whisk in warm milk at tablespoon at a time to thin it out.

Here, you can stop, add fresh herbs or sliced mushrooms, and use it with chicken or fish, or as the base for a pizza. My sister-in-law likes to use Béchamel in place of ricotta in lasagna, and it’s equally tasty.

Otherwise, to continue to the cheese sauce stage:

5. Add in the soy or Worcestershire sauce and mustard, stir to combine.

6. Add in your cheese and stir to combine until the resulting product is smooth. Taste and adjust salt to taste.

At this point, you can stir in cooked pasta, or a combination of cooked pasta and vegetables for mac and cheese, chopped hot peppers for a dip, or broccoli for a warming soup.




~ and

~ White pepper has a much stronger flavor and aroma than black pepper. However, for cream-based sauces and mashed cauliflower, celery root, or potatoes, restaurants opt for white pepper because it blends seamlessly and is not visible. I’m more a fan of black pepper’s flavor so when cooking at home that’s what I use. If you prefer white pepper, start with pinches (1/8th teaspoon) and adjust after tasting.


Now for the fun part: facts and figures!

I’ll start with cost, first for the sauce itself and then for the initial outlay of money to invest in all of the components.

The price for making an individual batch of the cheese sauce is $2. For another $1 you can get a pound of pasta, cook half and toss with the sauce, serving 2-3 people with another half pound of pasta leftover for another time. For another $2 instead, make veggie noodles from a couple of zucchini and toss with the sauce and also serve 2-3 people.

The price for purchasing all ingredients for the first time is $16.50. The breakdown:

Milk: up to $1.50 for a quart
Butter: $3 for one pound
Flour of choice: $1.50 for a small package, depending on preferred brand
Salt: $1
White pepper: $1
Onion Powder: $1
2-cup bag of shredded 4-cheese blend: $2.50
Mustard/ mustard powder: $2
Soy or Worcestershire sauce: $3

The good news is that all but the milk and cheese will still be pretty much full and available for plenty of cooking and baking. Since you use only about half of the milk and cheese, you can also make another batch of the cheese sauce.


Nutrition facts gathered from purchased product labels and supplemented with information supplied by

The calorie and fat content for a 1/4 cup of the either the standalone béchamel sauce or corresponding cheese sauce isn’t as bad as you might imagine, but none of the nutrients are high either.

One way to boost that is through some healthy additions:

1. Depending on the color of your sauce, various puréed root vegetables blend well. For the Béchamel, add puréed creamy (peeled) potatoes like Yukon Gold or red bliss. For cheddar cheese sauces, fold in a cup of puréed butternut squash or (peeled) sweet potato.

2. Fold in chopped, steamed or sautéed vegetables to a base cheese sauce for a warming soup or to enhance a Mac and cheese.

Basic information appears below.


Nutritional Information for 1/4 cup (two ounces) of Béchamel

58 calories
1.5 grams Carbohydrates
4.6 grams Fat
1.5 g Saturated
0.37 Monounsaturated
0.4 Polyunsaturated
2.2 grams Protein
10.6 mg Cholesterol
95 mg Potassium
2.5 mg Omega 3 fatty acids
18 mg Omega 6 fatty acids
72.5 mg Calcium
7 mg Magnesium
32 IU Vitamin D


Nutritional information for 1/4 cup (two ounces) of the Cheese Sauce

72 calories
1.5 grams Carbohydrates
5.6 grams Fat
2.5 g Saturated
0.37 Monounsaturated
0.4 Polyunsaturated
3.2 grams Protein
13.6 mg Cholesterol
225 mg Sodium
95 mg Potassium
2.5 mg Omega 3 fatty acids
18 mg Omega 6 fatty acids
250 mg Calcium
7 mg Magnesium
32 IU Vitamin D

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