Béchamel is your basic “white sauce”. It’s the Mother of the milk-based sauces in the classic French sauce pantheon. And it’s a great way to demonstrate the basics of thickening a sauce with Roux.
Roux the day!
“Roux” is a mixture of 50 per cent fat and 50 per cent flour by weight. The “by weight” part is very important! The “formula” for thickening with Roux is: 125 g of Roux (65 g Butter + 65 g Flour) (i.e.- 4.5 oz. total) will thicken 1 L ( 1 qt.) of liquid to a medium consistency.
Butter is the classic fat used in a Roux, but you can also use other fats or oils. Experiment!
Heat the fat to medium-low or medium (don’t exceed the fat’s smoke point!) and then add the flour. Stir for a minute or two until the fat and flour are completely blended and the outer edges of the resulting pasty mass are bubbling gently. This means that the flour grains are completely coated with fat, and that means they are much less likely to form lumps when the Milk is added!
Now you can add your milk and start stirring. You don’t have to pre-heat the milk, but it really does speed up the sauce-making process. If you add cold milk right out of the fridge, you’ll just have to wait – stirring and stirring and stirring – for the whole potful of liquid to come up to temperature again before it even starts to thicken. And then you may have lumps to contend with. Again, be careful not to overheat the milk. It will burn and stick to the bottom of the pan if heated to anything higher than medium-low. Simmer the developing sauce for 15 to 20 minutes to make sure the flour is cooked off – that is, to make sure no pasty consistency or flour taste remains.
The smiling Onion
To make this basic white sauce into a classic Béchamel, you’ll need to add an Onion Piqué to it while it simmers. That’s a whole Onion (small for a small batch of sauce; larger for a larger one) pierced by two whole Cloves (the eyes) and with a Bay Leaf inserted into a horizontal slit below, for the mouth. Cut the mouth slit with a slight upward angle (forming a curve on the surface of the Onion) and the Bay Leaf will actually smile! Add salt and pepper to taste and a pinch of Nutmeg just before serving.
Once you have a Béchamel in the pot, you can add other flavours and textures to create a variety of Child sauces.
The easiest is Cheese Sauce, made by adding a cup of grated Cheddar or other aged cheese to each two cups of Béchamel. Try adding another pinch of Nutmeg and a few pinches of ground dry Mustard to elevate your Cheese Sauce above the ordinary.
This Cheese Sauce is really good as a creamy base for classic Mac and Cheese. Just mix one part sauce (by volume) into each one part pre-cooked pasta of your choice, gently stir in par-cooked veggies (eg.- small Broccoli or Cauliflower florets) or pre-cooked meat (Ham is a perennial favourite) and place in a casserole dish large enough to hold the pasta and sauce mixture plus a half-inch (1 cm) layer of topping. I love a mixture of whole grain Bread Crumbs, enough melted Butter or Olive Oil to make the crumbs just stick together (like a handful of wet sand), more grated cheese to taste and a featured herb flavour, such as finely chopped fresh Rosemary, Thyme or Oregano. Bake for an hour on the middle rack of your oven and allow to stand for 5 to 10 minutes before serving, after removing the casserole from the oven.
This Cheddar Cheese Sauce is also a real hit as the Cheese layer in home-made Lasagna!
If you make a Cheese Sauce with Gruyére rather than Cheddar, it’s a classic Mornay.
If you add puréed Onions that have been sautéed in butter, you get a Soubise Sauce.
If you add Heavy Cream (35%, or “whipping” Cream), you’ve created a French Crème Sauce.
If you take your Crème Sauce and add minced Crayfish or Shrimps sautéed in lots of Butter, you have a velvety Nantua Sauce.
Where you go from there is up to you!
Béchamel Sauce and its versatile Daughter Sauces are everywhere you look in Classic French Cuisine and the principles behind it are echoed throughout the sauce world.
Master Béchamel and the all-important Roux formula, and you’re already half way to mastering a host of other great sauces!
Next time, In Sauces Part V, we’ll explore the delicate domain of the Velouté Sauces!
~ Maggie J.