I have been teaching my children to cook since they were very small. It is one of the greatest gifts I can imagine giving them, since it is a skill that leads to cheaper food, more control over their preferences, and healthier eating. Even if they cook something high in fat and sugar, it won’t begin to rival most prepared foods in potential health damage. I’ve been thinking about what constitutes basic cooking skills, and I think that we need to reach higher to reintegrate things that are currently considered advanced, and bring them back to the daily kitchen.
For example, I have frequently claimed that making a white sauce is the only useful thing I learned in junior high. It’s not quite true: I can think of two other things I learned in junior high, and they were both from Home Ec as well. I’m sure I learned other things in those three years, but these are the skills that I remember learning. (The other two were 1. not overmixing muffins, which is also useful for pancakes and biscuits, and 2. taking in a ruffle, which is good for seam easement, joining curves, and setting in sleeves.)
I’m not going to give a guide to making white sauce, because there are many other places to learn that already. For example, there is a very nice video here that demonstrates the basic technique:
Now that you know that, you’ve got limitless potential. Because you can substitute, add, season, and make all kinds of other sauces starting with that skill. Here is a list of 5 variations on a white sauce:
- A la vongole (that’s clams for the English among us): Add garlic to the butter before the flour goes in and fry it briefly, not to brown, just translucent. If you are using canned clams, use the juice from the clams in place of the first portion of milk, and add milk to get to the right consistency. After the sauce is complete, add the clams. If you are using steamed clams, use the steaming water/wine, as long as it isn’t sandy.
- Cheese sauce: After the white sauce is complete, add enough cheese to make you happy. This can be poured over macaroni or used on cauliflower. Use straight up or bake until bubbly.
- Mushroom wine sauce: fry mushrooms until soft in the butter (again, before you add the flour). You can either use a small number of mushrooms, or increase the amount of butter and take the mushrooms out while you make the sauce. Here’s the beauty: you can use red wine entirely in place of the milk and get a completely different sauce, but the technique is exactly the same.
- Garlic (as in 1). Parmesan (as in 2). Dash of cream if you want to boost the fat content. Yum. Alfredo sauce.
- Vegan: You can start with olive oil and flour to make your roux. It will still thicken. I have made sauces with veggie stock, and with soy milk, and they come out fine, but different. The stock makes a translucent sauce, but it still tastes great and makes a good base for pasta toppings, or casseroles. Don’t use vanilla soy milk by accident. Trust me, it’s weird. Although you could probably make an interesting dessert sauce this way, starting with something blander than olive oil and adding a bit of powdered sugar or cocoa… ooooh. Now I’ve got a whole new batch of ideas.
See? The options are limited only by your imagination. Most useful cooking skill, ever!