This is a sauce that is good to have in your repertoire. It is quick and easy, very adaptable to ingredients and skill level, and is used in everything from mac 'n cheese to lasagne.
Like the Basic Tomato Sauce, it will be used over and over. I am going to share my basic recipe, and discuss some variations and possibilities.
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1/4 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 cups milk
In a heavy bottomed saucepan, melt the butter over medium low heat.
While it is melting, measure out the dry ingredients.
When the butter has melted, add the dry ingredients all at once, and cook for 2 minutes, stirring to avoid scorching the flour.
Add the milk, a quarter at a time, whisking continuously until all the milk has been added and the sauce has come to a boil. Allow it to boil for about 30 seconds before removing it from the heat and using it in your recipe.
- Cooking the flour and butter is an important step in making bechamel, or white sauce. This helps to cook the flour, giving a smoother sauce.
- The seasonings can be adjusted to suit you or your recipe. If I am going to be adding the sauce to a recipe that has a lot of really salty ingredients already, I lower the amount of salt. The same goes for using salted or unsalted butter...use less salt with salted butter.
- Nutmeg is a traditional seasoning in bechamel, add a pinch at the end if you choose to.
- I use a low fat (1 % milk fat) milk; use whatever milk you have on hand. The higher the fat content the richer your sauce will be. Feel free to indulge with half and half or whipping cream if you like.
- Warming the milk before adding it will help the sauce to come to a boil sooner, and lessen the amount of whisking involved. I find that as you become more comfortable with making this sauce, you are able to lower the heat and whisk vigorously less often. In the event of little lumps remaining, it's as easy as putting it through a strainer before using it! With time and practice you shouldn't have any lumps, as you will learn how high to have the heat to obtain the best results.
- In some recipes, such as Chicken, Leek and Green Pea Pot Pie with Blue Cheese , the sauce that holds the meat and vegetables together is a version of this sauce. In cases like this, chicken or vegetable stock are often used instead of milk. You can also use some of both.
- Some soups are thickened with flour, and this is another variation on this sauce...the liquid to flour ratio is higher, which gives you a thinner liquid as the end result. See the post Seafood Chowder for an example of this.
- To make a thicker sauce, for something like Grilled Chicken, Spinach and Artichoke Lasagne, you can decrease the amount of liquid to achieve a thicker sauce for your layers if you like. This is a good idea if you are not using the ricotta cheese.
- A thin bechamel can be used to replace whipping cream in cream sauces for pastas if you like; you won't have the same richness, but you will have less fat!
- Once you have mastered this simple recipe, add grated cheddar (or a blend of your favourite cheeses...a great way to use up those little end pieces), add it to cooked macaroni and you can say good bye to boxed mac 'n cheese forever! Two ways to do this are
- If you are making the bechamel ahead of time, press a layer of plastic wrap directly onto the surface as soon as you remove it from the heat. This will prevent a skin from forming on the top of the sauce as it cools down. The sauce can be made up to 2 days ahead of time.