There are certain kitchen skills that, once gotten the knack of, allow the cook to appear to effortlessly “whip a little something up” without cracking a cookbook or breaking a sweat. One such trick up the cook’s sleeve is the roux which is then used as a thickener for liquids. If it thickens milk, you have made a sauce béchamel- think cheese sauce or cream of mushroom soup; if stock, a sauce velouté- think gravy.
It is my ever so humble opinion that people who use condensed cream soups just can’t be bothered to learn how to make a béchamel, which really takes far less time to concoct than it does to go to Safeway, find the soup aisle, search through the scores of available canned soups, make your purchase, and drive home. Do you really not have milk, flour, and fat in your house? Then what a deeply sad house it must be, and indeed, that may be my new definition of what a “home” is- milk, flour, and fat inside a house.
There is no real measuring involved. One takes equal portions of fat and flour, and by fat, I mean butter, oil, bit of rendered bacon fat, or lard I suppose, and mixes them into a smooth paste over medium-low heat with perhaps a wooden spoon if one is at hand. About a tablespoon of each will thicken a cup of milk to a creamed soup consistency. They should begin to foam up and toast the flour gently. Cooking the flour should produce a nice toasted fragrance and, after a few minutes of stirring, a pale golden color. Congratulations, you have just made a blonde roux! You can certainly take this process further if you wish to make gumbo, cooking your roux ‘til it is the color of peanut butter, but that is a topic for another day. It is now time to add the milk. I have heard that hot milk incorporates into the roux more smoothly and less lumpily, but honestly, I usually don’t remember to heat the milk beforehand and count myself foresighted indeed if I remember to take the milk out far enough ahead to come up to room temperature. However, a whisk will come in handy for beating out any lumps that may form in the velvety depths of your sauce. Pour in the milk and stir. When it comes to a simmer, the sauce will be thickened and ready for the many and various guises that it so ably assumes.