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. Béchamel, known as white sauce in the Midwestern kitchens of my youth, is a very, very helpful thing to know.
Here's why, and how to make it.
What Is Béchamel, and Why Should You Know It by Heart?
A béchamel or white sauce is one of the classic French "mother sauces" that form the basis of much French cuisine. White sauce is perhaps the most commonly used mother sauce for home cooks. It forms the backbone of most baked macaroni and cheese recipes, as well as sausage gravy, and it can even be whipped up into savory soufflés.
It is also the secret to truly creamy casseroles and bakes — especially when you don't want to throw in gobs of cheese. When you want a creamy texture and luxurious silkiness to a baked dish, mix up this quick and simple sauce of milk (or non-dairy milk!) thickened with flour, and suddenly you have that creaminess you crave.
The Basic Béchamel Ratio
The basic ratio for a classic béchamel is 3 ounces of fat (butter, ghee, coconut oil) to 3 ounces of all-purpose flour for the roux. This ratio of roux will thicken up to a quart of milk, but you can use less milk for a thicker sauce, as we do below.
How to Make White Sauce at Home
White sauce is not terribly tricky, but it wants you to pay attention to it since it can go from white to brown quickly. We're only cooking it long enough to remove some of that raw flavor so have everything ready to go before you get started. Here are the key steps.
- Warm the milk: I highly suggest warming your milk before adding it to the hot roux. Just a few minutes in the microwave will prevent a lot of spurting and splattering on the stovetop when the milk is added to the roux. Plus, the sauce will thicken much faster with warm milk.
- Cook butter and flour to make a roux: A roux — a mixture of equal weights butter and flour — is made by melting butter, whisking in all-purpose flour, and cooking the two together into a clumpy paste. The butter and flour swell as they are cooked and will thicken the milk for this creamy sauce.
- Add the milk and cook until thickened: Add just a bit of warm milk to the hot roux and whisk to loosen up the butter-flour mixture. This also helps prevent lumps in the finished sauce. Add the rest of the warm milk and whisk, whisk, whisk to combine. Continue to cook the mixture until thick and creamy.
How to Use Béchamel
This sauce is a good base for creamy sauces. It's often used in gratins like mac and cheese and with baked vegetables and forms the base of the classic cheese soufflé. Béchamel can dressed up into a pasta sauce with a little extra liquid and some herbs.
How To Make Béchamel Sauce (White Sauce)
What You Need
2 cups milk
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 1/2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- Warm the milk: Warm the milk in a separate saucepan or in the microwave until warm to the touch and set aside.
- Melt the butter: Melt the butter in a small, heavy saucepan over medium heat, but do not let it brown.
- Add the flour: Add the flour and stir it quickly into the butter with a wooden spoon. As you can see in the photo, the butter and flour will be a mixture that looks like wet scrambled eggs at first.
- Cook the roux: Cook and stir the flour-butter mixture 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.
- Add a few tablespoons of warm milk: 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.
- Add the remaining milk and whisk: Now grab the whisk and gradually add the rest of the milk to the loosened flour mixture while whisking constantly. Whisk vigorously until smooth!
- Cook until thickened: Cook, stirring constantly, until starting to bubble and thicken. 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.
- 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.
- Storage: Leftover béchamel can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. Reheat over very low heat on the stovetop.