The Secret to Healthier Cream Sauces

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By: , SparkPeople Blogger
6/25/2012 2:00 PM   :  14 comments   :  38,721 Views

Sauces can make or break a dish, both in taste and in nutrition. Take the classic cream sauce, for example. Delicious, yes. Healthy, no way! The ingredients are usually white flour, butter, and heavy cream, with some whole milk added for good measure.
 
Thankfully, we can improve on the classics to make them a welcome addition to the healthy kitchen.
 
Let's edit the name ever so slightly. Rather than a cream sauce, we're creating a creamy sauce.
 
Rather than heavy cream, start with flavorful liquids that have little to no salt, such as homemade stock.

I often make a quick stock by pouring boiling water over dried mushrooms, which serves two purposes: the steeping liquid becomes the stock, and the mushrooms add texture to the sauce. When combined with a roux, that flour-and-fat combo that is cooked to create a thickener, the thin stock yields a velvety sauce the plenty of "mouth feel"--no cream needed.
 
Thankfully, you can re-create a "creamy" taste and texture with foods that are low in fat and calories. Swap heavy cream and whole milk for skim milk, unsweetened soy or almond milk, silken tofu, nonfat Greek yogurt, or (my favorite) evaporated 2% milk, which is what I used to trim the fat in Chef Meg's Light Alfredo Pasta with Veggies.  The end result is a creamy dish that's light enough for summer, which is great because it pairs so well with all those garden-fresh vegetables!

Note: If you add yogurt to a dish, add it just before serving after you've turned off the heat to prevent the sauce from curdling.
 
Building in Flavor
In their most basic state, cream sauces can be rich but bland. In the healthy kitchen, we can change that by packing in the vegetables. Fresh or dried mushrooms are a great choice, but so are roasted peppers, roasted butternut squash, carrots, and caramelized onions.  
 
Herbs, tomato puree, horseradish, and even mustard can help build flavor and thicken the sauce.  In summer, I chop up parsley, thyme, and basil, then freeze in ice cube trays. Later I add a cube or two to sauces for a burst of freshness.
 
Healthy Swaps for Thickeners
Most sauces are thickened with flour or starch of some sort using one of two methods: a roux or a slurry. Rouxs are equal parts of fat (oil, pan drippings, or butter) and flour that are cooked together before adding the liquid. Slurries are a cool mixture of water and flour or starch that are shaken or stirred together then added to sauce that's already partially cooked. Rouxs are often used to start sauces; slurries are used to thicken sauces or pan juices
 
Even the traditional roux can be tweaked to make it lighter. The easiest swap is to use whole wheat flour in place of white or all-purpose flour. Traditionally you would use equal parts of fat, usually butter, and flour, the higher-gluten whole-wheat flour requires a bit more liquid so you'll need to experiment.
 
Arrowroot powder can also be used to thicken sauces, as can corn starch, but it thickens at a lower temperature than corn starch and shouldn't be used in dairy-based sauces because it yields a slimy texture. Heat only until the mixture thickens, then remove from heat. Overheating arrowroot will cause it to break down and your sauce will become thinner. Always mix arrowroot with a cool liquid such as stock or water (forming a slurry) before adding to a sauce.
 
Beyond traditional roux and slurry based sauces, you can thicken with a variety of other ingredients that add flavor as well as texture. White miso adds depth and salt (so use it sparingly). Pureed white beans thicken beautifully and offer a rich, buttery flavor that's perfect for cream sauces. Boiled potatoes, cooked lentils or chickpeas, and even premade hummus can add creamy texture to tomato and pesto sauces as well as the traditional "white" sauces. When making a cheese sauce, adding pureed vegetables is a great way to sneak in nutrition and add thick richness. Light cream cheese is also wonderful in sauces. It thickens and melts wonderfully.
 
For a busy weeknight supper, stir a tablespoon of flavored hummus into tomato sauce and serve with a portion of whole-wheat pasta. You'll think you're eating a tomato-Alfredo sauce, for far fewer calories.
 
Finish with Flavor
When you're making Alfredo or other cheesy "white" sauces, choose a flavorful hard cheese such as Parmesan or Asiago or reach for softer cheeses that add tang, such as feta or goat cheese.
 
A dusting of spices such as nutmeg, white pepper, paprika, and thyme will add almost zero calories but finish your pasta nicely.
 
Though traditionally you would strain your cream sauce before serving, I like to keep the herbs, spices and veggies in the sauce. It's the best part!
 
Lighter Creamy Recipes Description: http://recipes.sparkpeople.com/spacer.gif
What is your best trick for creating a "creamy" sauce without all the calories?
 
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Comments

  • 14
    You can boil cauliflower then put it in blender with half a cup of veg broth, blend it and you have an amazing cream sauce! Just add spices and voila! No fat, but thick, creamy, yummy! - 1/21/2014   9:39:36 PM
  • HEALTHYBOOMER
    13
    Desertjulz- where can you pick up psyllium husk? I'd like to try that one.
    Thanks! - 6/27/2012   12:49:18 PM
  • CLEO27
    12
    I have a recipe from Kraft for No cream creamy broccoli soup and it says to put rice in for thickening. It's really creamy before you add the milk. - 6/26/2012   9:00:27 PM
  • 11
    I don't know if it's all that healthy, but I've used a can of evaporated skim milk instead of cream when I simply must have gravy. - 6/26/2012   8:58:53 AM
  • 10
    Someone forgot to add the button for facebook - I have someone I need to share this with on there! This is GREAT - for a newlywed who is trying the healthier lifestyle, but new hubby isn't on board and his favorite dishes - use sauces - like tuna noodle casserole. - 6/26/2012   8:50:03 AM
  • JPEARL127
    9
    Great tips!!! I found that I've been using some of these! - 6/26/2012   7:37:59 AM
  • 8
    very useful article, lots of tips
    agree with DESERTJULZ that psyllium husk thickens - 6/26/2012   7:15:09 AM
  • 7
    Great ideas, all of them. I would probably just have a real cream sauce on a splurge occasion, though - I don't cook with many creamy sauces in general. - 6/26/2012   6:47:12 AM
  • PRUSSIANETTE
    6
    For those that need gluten-free thickening, if flour is used in a recipe, use cornstarch, but half the amount listed in the recipe (i.e. if it calls for 2 tablespoons of flour, use 1 tablespoon of cornstarch). If you use the same amount as is required of the flour, you will usually end up with more of a "solid" sticky mess rather than a sauce.

    I've never tried a roux with cornstarch, as even before I found out I had to be gluten-free, I never liked roux-based sauces, just never liked the texture. However, I and my family have tried numerous other types of sauces, and it works quite well. I even like the look better as it is a clear sauce as opposed to cloudy. My mother's "famous" German style potato salad was easily adapted with cornstarch instead of flour. - 6/26/2012   12:37:54 AM
  • 5
    I personally am not a fan of these sauces. Not that that means anything against anyone who does but perhaps that is not a bad thing either!! - 6/25/2012   9:35:43 PM
  • 4
    This is a great blog, thank you. I do find that very little of a rich sauce, even done in a traditional way, can be surprisingly satisfying. So sometimes I do that instead of lots of a leaner sauce. - 6/25/2012   6:32:43 PM
  • 3
    Seems to me as if sauces are at the bottom of dishes versus layered/ poured on the top. Why?
    I suppose it looks prettier. As long as it tastes good, either way works for me.
    Drizzled on, swiped, covered, uncovered, garnished,...it's all relevant! - 6/25/2012   3:27:37 PM
  • ALDEBARANIAN
    2
    It's nice to go the Italian route rather than French to make a roux also, replace the butter with ev olive oil.

    Also, I enjoy a little salt flavor, but without adding too much salt, so I often either drastically reduce the salt, or leave it out altogether, at the cooking stage, and use a light sprinkle at the table. This is probably controversial though. - 6/25/2012   3:23:54 PM
  • 1
    Another great thickener is psyllium husk. The added benefit here is it can also be used in raw recipes as it does not need heat to activate its thickening properties. And an even better added benefit is that it is 4-5 grams of fiber per Tablespoon. - 6/25/2012   2:58:26 PM

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