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
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