Sauces vs. Soups for Casseroles

by Elizabeth Skipper | March 20th, 2013 | Ask the Chef

canI was raised in the 1960’s – the casserole generation. This means I use a lot of condensed soups for sauces. Where do I begin to learn how to make healthier sauces from scratch?

What you’re looking to do, basically, is reverse engineer your casserole recipes to the days when canned soups weren’t available. It’s not hard at all to make sauces rather than soups for your dishes; it just takes a little more time than opening a can. The results, however, are so worth it. You eliminate the unnecessary ingredients that come with processed foods, and the taste is far, far better than anything out of a can.

A friend once told me that she wasn’t very good at making sauces, so one convenience food in particular she used was a jarred alfredo sauce. Thinking perhaps it wasn’t that bad – after all, I thought her taste was pretty good – I picked up a jar to try. I was shocked. It was awful, no two ways about it. Of course, to me, alfredo sauce means butter, cream and parmigiano reggiano cheese with a bit of salt and pepper. I’m not sure any of these even made an appearance in the jarred version. Out it went! And it wasn’t cheap, either.

As for canned soups, I don’t think they taste much better. The last time I used one was for a tuna noodle casserole for a client … and even then I purchased an organic brand because I couldn’t get past the ingredients on the familiar red and white can. So I’m no fan.

What did cooks use before convenience foods? Leftover gravies, meat juices, and freshly made sauces. What kinds of sauces? Really, just the basics – white or cream sauces and tomato sauces. Read on to see how easy they are to make.

Let’s start with white (or béchamel, in French) sauce, which at its simplest is nothing more than thickened milk. The thickener most frequently used is a roux, a mixture of fat (usually butter) and flour cooked together briefly to eliminate the taste of raw flour before a liquid is added to it.

Béchamel Sauce (White Sauce)

Per cup of milk, use the following amounts of butter and flour to achieve various consistencies of sauce:

1 TB each butter & flour thin sauce
2 TB each butter & flour medium sauce
3 TB each butter & flour thick sauce

Cooking a roux requires a bit of care. It should be done over medium, even heat. If the fat gets too hot, the roux will not thicken properly.

Heat the butter in a saucepan until the foam subsides. Remove the pot from the heat. Add the flour, mix well, and return the pot to medium-low heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the roux is a very light yellow in color. This is called a blonde roux.

Heat the milk until very hot in another pan. As soon as the roux is cooked, remove the pan from the heat and whisk half the milk into it. Whisk until all the milk is incorporated; the mixture will be very thick. Add the rest of the milk and whisk until smooth.

Return the pan to the heat and stirring constantly, bring to a boil. Season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg.

One cup of thick béchamel can take the place of a can of cream of [fill in the blank] sauce. If you want to replace cream of mushroom soup, for example, sauté ½ lb. of sliced mushrooms and two tablespoons minced onion in the butter before proceeding with the sauce. For cream of celery soup, sauté ½ cup sliced celery and two tablespoons minced onion in the butter before proceeding. For cheddar cheese soup, make mornay sauce:

Mornay Sauce (Cheese Sauce)

To each cup of béchamel sauce, add ½ to one cup grated cheese, depending on the sharpness of the cheese and your own taste. In the U.S., the cheese is usually cheddar; in Europe it would more likely be gruyere. You may wish to season Mornay sauce made with cheddar with dry mustard or cayenne pepper rather than nutmeg.

What about cream of chicken soup? Use ¾ cup chicken stock or broth and ¼ cup milk or cream instead of all milk; add some diced cooked chicken if you feel so inclined. Tomato soup? You guessed it – replace the milk with tomato juice and seasonings of your choice, or V8 juice, which is quite flavorful as is.

By the way, roux-thickened chicken or veal stock is called a velouté sauce. Enrich with egg yolks and cream, and you have allemande sauce. I’m just mentioning this as an illustration of how sauces are derived from the basics.

Could you make a sauce with roux and beef stock? Of course. The only change is that the roux should be carefully cooked longer so it browns more. The longer a roux cooks, the less thickening power it has, though, so go easy. Now you have a sauce that goes well with beef casseroles.

There you have it. With this basic proportion of roux to liquid, you now have the means to substitute real sauces for at least five kinds of canned soups, and I’ll bet you can think of more. The circle is complete.

  1. […] Speaking of thickening, a specialty flour you probably should keep on hand is instant or quick-blending flour. This is formulated to blend more easily with liquid, and you can use it in place of cornstarch to thicken sauces, soups, and gravies. It also lets you make white sauce without having to melt fat first and blending the flour with it. Stir a little of this into milk or clear broth, add seasoning, and you no longer have any need for canned cream of mushroom soup. […]

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