~ How to: Make a Classic Bechamel (White Sauce) ~
Confession: I am a sauce-a-holic. The only thing I love more than eating really good food, is eating really good food served with a special sweet or savory sauce or gravy to compliment it and enhance its flavor. If I had my way, every dish would be served with its own sauce, and, more than a few of you have heard me say (countless times) "a dish is only as good as the sauce that is served with it". Just like the food being served, a sauce really is only as good the ingredients you put into it. Whether simple or complex, the key lies in proper preparation!
Liquid + Thickener + Flavoring = Sauce!
The French are credited with refining the art of sauce-making during the 19th century. French Chef Antonin Careme is credited with the development of hundreds of sauces, all of which are classified under one of five categories known as the five Mother Sauces:
Bechamel, Veloute, Espagnole, Hollandaise (& Mayonnaise) and Vinaigrette!
Each one of these five sauces is the base from which all sorts of secondary or "small sauces" are prepared. I read somewhere that each one of the mother sauces is "like the head of its own sauce family" (a great explanation). Over the course of the 20th century, Tomat (Tomato) has been added as a sixth category, which, makes perfect sense, since it is the base for many sauces in our own present day kitchens!
Butter + Flour + Milk + Spices = Bechamel Sauce!
Bechamel (bay-shah-mehl), or, basic white sauce, might sound fancy, but it couldn't be easier to make. It's sometimes referred to as "cream sauce", because whole milk (not lowfat or skim) is used in its preparation, which, when thickened, takes on a creamy appearance. Bechamel is traditionally made by melting butter or oil (never margarine or shortening), adding equal parts of flour (in proportion to the butter) to form a thick, smooth paste (called a "roux"), then whisking in cold, whole milk, until the mixture thickens to the desired consistency (thin, medium or thick). Classically, the sauce is seasoned, to taste, with salt, white pepper, bay leaf, clove and/or nutmeg. Classic Bechamel does not have eggs added to it. It was named after its inventor, Louis XIV's steward Louis de Bechamel!
Bechamel is the base for many other sauces: Creme (Bechamel w/cream added), Nantua (Bechamel w/seafood added), Mornay (Bechamel w/cheese added), Mutarde (Bechamel w/mustard added), Soubise (w/onion added) and, Cheddar (w/cheddar cheese added to it)!
Bechamel is not just for French cuisine. In Italy, it is called balsamella and is used in dishes like lasagna and stuffed shells. In Greece, it is called besamel, and is used in recipes like moussaka and pastitsio. Universally, it's used to add a rich, velvety quality to many dishes and gratins!
Making Bechamel sauce is easy & a great technique to know:
5 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon all-purpose flour (2/3 cup)
4 cups whole milk, cold
2 whole bay leaves
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 teaspoon sea salt, more or less, to taste
Note about spices: These are the classic additions to Bechamel. Substitute or omit based upon personal taste or specific recipe!
~ Step 1. To prepare the roux: in a chef's pan melt the butter over low heat. Once melted, whisk in the the flour. Continue to cook, until mixture is smooth and the flour has lost its "raw" taste, 2-3 minutes. Regulate the heat carefully to keep roux from darkening or browning.
Note: I'm not going to outright say this is wrong and tell you to not do it, but it is not classic technique. Classic French technique dictates that hot never gets added to hot.
The cold milk is going to stop the flour from cooking. Using cold milk will mean that it will take longer for the sauce to thicken, but this added time allows the flavors of the spices to develop, and, makes for a silkier textured Bechamel.
~ Step 4. Continue to cook over low heat, whisking constantly, until the mixture is warm, about 6-7 minutes. Increase the heat to medium and continue to cook, whisking constantly, until the mixture just reaches the boiling point, about 8-9 minutes, until thickened yet drizzly. Do not overcook Bechamel. It will continue to thicken as it cools, so, if you over-thicken it to begin with, the end result will be gloppy and pasty.
~ Step 5. Remove from heat and transfer the Bechamel to a 1-quart measuring container. Cover with plastic wrap, placing the plastic directly on the surface of the sauce. This will prevent a rubbery skin from forming on the surface. Cool to warm or room temperature, then use as directed in specific recipe, or, refrigerate overnight. Return to room temperature prior to using as directed in specific recipe.
Special Equipment List: 3-quart chef's pan w/straight, deep sides, preferably nonstick; whisk; 1-quart measuring container; plastic wrap
"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti
(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2012)