See this creamy goop? This is a piece of culinary magic that holds casseroles together, forms the base of soufflés, and can even be turned into a pasta sauce with a few extra ingredients. This is a white sauce — a very, very helpful thing to know in the kitchen. Just in case you've never made one before, or want a refresher, here's a quick photo tutorial!
A béchamel or white sauce is one of the classic French "mother sauces" that form the basis of much French cuisine. The original recipe for béchamel may be this one from Auguste Escoffier: "White roux moistened with milk, salt, onion stuck with clove [aka onion pique], cook for 18 minutes". A white sauce is perhaps the most commonly-used mother sauce for home cooks.
It's really very simple: A roux (a mix of equal weights butter and flour) is cooked together into a clumpy paste, then cooked with milk until smooth and creamy. The butter and flour swell as they are cooked in order to thicken the milk.
This relatively low-fat sauce is a good base for creamy sauces; it's often used in gratins like mac 'n' cheese, and with baked vegetables. It forms the base of the classic cheese soufflé, and it can be dressed up into a pasta sauce with a little extra liquid and some herbs. Knowing how to make a white sauce is a great technique for any cook; it's so easy and quick to make, and you know that you'll end up with a creamy, well-thickened sauce.
What You Need
50 grams (about 6 tablespoons) unsalted butter
50 grams (3 1/2 tablespoons) flour
2 cups (about 480 grams) milk
1. Measure out the butter, flour, and milk. (Note: There is quite a lot of room for adjustment in the quantity of milk. For a very thick, sticky béchamel use about 1 1/2 cups. For a much looser, more liquid sauce, use 2 1/2 cups or even more, to get the consistency you want. Also, the more fat in the milk, the thicker the sauce will be.)
Warm the milk in a separate saucepan or in the microwave and set aside.
2. Place the butter in a heavy saucepan over medium heat and melt it completely, but do not let it brown.
3. Dump in the flour and stir it quickly into the butter.
4. As you can see in the photo, the butter and flour will be a mixture of wet scrambled eggs at first.
5. Cook and stir the flour-butter mixture over medium heat for about 5 to 8 minutes. The butter and flour will dry out slightly, and turn just a bit darker to a more golden color. Do not let it brown or darken; we are creating a "blond" or golden roux, where the flour has just been cooked.
6. Pour in just a few tablespoons of the hot milk, just enough to moisten the flour and butter mixture. Stir thoroughly to loosen up the thick flour mixture.
7. Now grab the whisk and gradually add the rest of the milk to the loosened flour mixture, whisking constantly. Whisk vigorously!
8. You will be left with a thick, warm, creamy mix of flour, butter, and milk. From here you can add cheese, salt, and pepper to create a sauce for mac 'n' cheese, or the base for a soufflé.
Do you have any additional tips for making a béchamel? Any favorite recipes that include a white sauce?
• If you use stock (vegetable, chicken, beef, veal, or shellfish) instead of milk as the primary liquid in this sauce, you will have another classic mother sauce: a velouté. We really love using this easy sauce for lower-fat, extra-tasty pasta sauces, like this Rich No-Cream Wild Mushroom Pasta Sauce.
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(Images: Faith Durand)