White sauce, or béchamel, is one of the five classic French mother sauces. In the annals of Classic French Cooking there are five “mother” sauces: béchamel, velouté, espagnole, hollandaise, and sauce tomat.
All of these sauces have derivatives, or if you like, daughters, and once you learn them, you can make a variety of sauces by adding other ingredients to suit your intended purpose.
Béchamel is sometimes referred to simply as white sauce or cream sauce, although it is made with milk, not cream. It’s quick and easy. Use it in casseroles, as a base for soufflés or even in some lasagna recipes.
How to Make a Béchamel?
With all its versatility, you might think the sauce would be hard and time consuming to make. It is not! You can whip up the sauce in under 10 minutes.
In fact, it only has three ingredients: milk, flour, and butter. It starts with a blond roux, made by whisking flour and butter for about 2 minutes in a saucepan on the stove. That’s just long enough to cook the flour without browning it to eliminate the pasty taste that comes from raw flour. Once the roux has bubbled for a minute or two, add half the milk and whisk to eliminate any lumps. Then whisk in the remaining milk.
Many recipes advocate for hot milk when making a béchamel, but I have found that heating the milk is an unnecessary extra step. Practically speaking, the sauce is easier to manage with cold milk since lumps don’t form too quickly.
The sauce does take a little longer to come to a boil than if you added hot milk, but you eliminate an extra step. Once the sauce comes to a boil, it must continue to cook for at least one minute to ensure it thickens. Stir constantly and keep your eye on the bottom of the pot to avoid scorching.
What Can Go Wrong When Making a Béchamel Sauce?
Béchamel is one of the easiest of the mother sauces to make and you’re certain to find success if you pay attention to these details.
- Prevent the flour from browning when making the roux. If it looks like it’s cooking too quickly, simply slide the pan off the burner and keep stirring until the pan cools down; it will keep cooking with residual heat.
- Stir continuously once you add the milk, so the bottom of the pot doesn’t scorch, and lumps don’t form.
- Cooking the flour is key to a delicious sauce!
- Pay attention to the bottom corners of the pan and be sure to scrape your whisk into the edges from time to time.
How to Adjust the Consistency of a Béchamel
The béchamel in this recipe is ‘medium thick’ consistency. To adjust the consistency of the sauce according to your preference. Add a little milk to thin out the sauce if it is too thick. If it is too thin, you can stir in a few teaspoons of buerre manié.
Buerre manié is the French term (literally ‘kneaded butter’) for a paste made from equal parts butter and flour mixed together until smooth. It can be added to thicken pretty much any sauce. It melts into the sauce easily with whisking. The sauce needs to boil gently for a minute or two to fully cook the flour once you add the buerre manié.
What Can You Make with Béchamel Sauce?
The beauty of all the mother sauces is that they are at your service for a myriad of variations. Béchamel is no exception.
Add cheese to it and it becomes a mornay sauce. Typically, a French Mornay sauce would have Swiss or Gruyere cheese added to it to spoon over eggs, fish, or vegetables (think of a plate of perfectly cooked asparagus, for example.) Stir grated cheddar and macaroni into it and it becomes mac and cheese!
Croque monsieur, is a famous French hot ham and cheese sandwich where béchamel is the starting point. You can’t say no to oozy cheese sauce on top of a sandwich rendered golden under the broiler. Doesn’t that make you hungry?
Cream added to béchamel becomes sauce crème for baked or broiled gratins. For fish or poultry, add mustard to a classic béchamel to make a tangy sauce. Sauce Soubise, is made with a béchamel and thinly sliced or puréed onions softened in butter. It could be stirred into risotto or served alongside a roast chicken. The list goes on and on.
How to Store or Freeze Béchamel
Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. Reheat over low heat, whisking constantly, on the stovetop. You can freeze béchamel in an airtight container for up to 3 months.
Reheat the frozen block in a small covered pot over low heat, whisking well. Add a thin layer of water to the bottom of the pot, and stir often once the sauce starts to liquefy.
Classic Béchamel Sauce
- 2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon unsalted butter, divided
- 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 2 cups whole milk
- 1/4 teaspoon salt, or more, to taste
- Pinch of white or black pepper (optional)
Make the blond roux:
In a heavy-bottomed 6-cup saucepan set over medium-low heat, melt 2 tablespoons of butter. Add the flour and whisk together until the butter and flour mixture forms small bubbles with a faint tint of color, about 2 minutes.
Whisk in the milk:
Add 1 cup of the milk (all at once) and whisk until the sauce is smooth and lump-free. Whisk in the remaining 1 cup of milk (all at once), with the salt, and white or black pepper.
Raise the heat to medium and bring the sauce to a low boil with small bubbles breaking the surface and wisps of steam. Keep whisking the simmering sauce for an additional 2 minutes, or until it is thickened and no longer tastes of raw flour.
The finished sauce should have a thick, gravy-like consistency.
Use or store the sauce:
Use immediately or pour into a storage container. Spread the remaining 1 teaspoon of butter over the surface of the hot sauce to keep a skin from forming.
Cool the sauce for 10 to 15 minutes before refrigerating or freezing, covered with a lid.