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Béchamel SauceThe Mother Sauces are the building blocks of all sauces, gravies, soups, etc.  Once you master these basic sauces, the sauce world will be you oyster…so to speak.  We’re going to begin with Béchamel Sauce.  Béchamel started out in Italy (known as Bascamella) around the 13th or 14th century.  It was taken to France with Marie de’ Medici when she became queen and then began showing up on the tables of French aristocracy around the late 16th century.  Of the Mother Sauces, Béchamel continues to be the most frequently used sauce, in its many variations.

Béchamel is quite simply a sauce made from combining butter and flour (called a roux), heating it, then adding a hot liquid (milk, broth, wine, etc.) and cook until the sauce thickens and the starchy flavor disappears.  You may use other fats like oil, bacon fat, margarine, duck fat, etc.  We’re going to focus on the classic Béchamel here today and that uses butter, flour and milk and sometimes a grating of fresh nutmeg.  There are 3 different thicknesses of Béchamel–Thick, Medium and Thin.

  • Thick Béchamel is mostly used as a binding agent, as in making croquettes or stuffed vegetables.
  • Medium Béchamel  is used for lasagna, scalloped potatoes, etc.
  • Thin Béchamel is the base for many cream soups and pasta dishes.

Béchamel Sauce – Master Recipe

Thin Sauce

  • 1 tablespoon butter or margarine
  • 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup warm milk (or 1/2 milk, 1/2 half-and-half)
  • Salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Medium Sauce

  • 2 tablespoon butter or margarine
  • 2 tablespoon all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup warm milk (or 1/2 milk, 1/2 half-and-half)
  • Salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Thick Sauce

  • 3 tablespoon butter or margarine
  • 3 tablespoon all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup warm milk (or 1/2 milk, 1/2 half-and-half)
  • Salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Grating of fresh nutmeg and splash of fresh lemon juice

Here’s how:

Béchamel Sauce - Making the rouxMelt butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Stir in flour and cook over medium, stirring constantly, until mixture is smooth and bubbly, about 1 to 2 minutes.

Béchamel Sauce

Stir in 1/2 of the warm milk (or other warm liquid—see variations below). This loosens the mixture. Add the remaining milk, stirring constantly as you add it. Heat to simmering, stirring constantly. Simmer gently, whisking constantly for 1-2 minutes.

Béchamel Sauce - Freshly Grated NutmegSeason to taste with salt and pepper; add a few gratings of fresh nutmeg and a splash of lemon juice. You’re done!

COOK’S NOTE: Using warm liquid helps prevent lumps and using a whisk, and constantly whisking, will help prevent the sauce from scorching on the bottom of the pan; it also makes the sauce less likely to have lumps. If the sauce isn’t as smooth as you wish, strain it before serving. To prevent a skin from forming, place plastic wrap directly on the hot sauce.  When adding cheese, add it off the heat and do not over-stir or the cheese may become stringy; stir just until the cheese is melted.

Béchamel Sauce with AdditionsI added sautéed shallots, a pinch of cayenne, finely chopped fresh thyme and lemon verbena and a couple of tablespoons of grated parmesan cheese.Béchamel Sauce with Mushrooms and TomatoesThis became the sauce for my pan-fried scrod.  It’s garnished with finely chopped tomato (I still had one left from the garden…yum!) and toasted chopped pecans on a bed of saffron rice.  From start to finish this took me 25 minutes and that included taking the pictures!

Here are a few other variations–

Cheese Sauce—Remove the pan from the heat; gently stir 1/2 to 1 cup sharp cheddar cheese, or combination of cheeses, into the prepared sauce, stirring just until melted. This is the classic au gratin sauce which can be mixed with potatoes, veggies, meats, heated through or reheated and broiled at the end.

Mornay Sauce—Season the Cheese Sauce with a little Dijon or dry mustard and/or Worcestershire sauce to taste.

Cream Sauce—Add 2 or 3 tablespoons of heavy cream to the finished sauce. For an onion  and/or garlic flavor, add an onion slice or 1 sliced garlic clove to the milk when heating; remove onion/garlic slice(s) before adding milk to flour and butter mixture.

Velouté Sauce—Substitute chicken, beef, fish, or vegetable broth for the milk.

Herb-Lemon Sauce—Add 1 teaspoon of freshly chopped herbs or 1/2 teaspoon dried herbs and the zest of 1/2 a lemon to 1 cup of hot sauce. Cook for 1-2 minutes longer to get more flavor from the herbs.

See how easy that was…the next posting will delve into vinaigrettes.