In this post:
- The history of the béchamel sauce – it’s Italian, not French
- How to make a basic béchamel sauce, including tips for the beginner, and how to save a béchamel sauce
- The science behind this sauce
- Different types of roux, and what they are used for
- What can you add to a béchamel sauce, and what does it then become
- Uses for a béchamel sauce
“Heroines in novels may be ‘discovered’ poised gracefully over a rather advanced sauce; in real life a girl is more apt to be red in the face and stirring furiously at the lumps.”Katharine Whitehorn, Cooking In A Bedsitter
The history of the béchamel sauce – it’s Italian, not French
A type of sauce known as salsa colla was used by Italian renaissance chefs in fifteenth century – it may well have been thickened by whitewash – an early form of roux made of flour mixed with water to make a paste. It’s not much used now because the flour is raw and has a bad taste. Salsa colla means literally ‘glue sauce’, not surprising as a sort of rudimentary glue can also be made out of flour and water.
In 1533 Catherine de’i Médici, married Prince Henri of France (later to become Henri II). She took with her in her entourage a number of chefs, introducing a number of utensils (the fork), foods (Parmesan, artichokes), and dishes (duck á l’orange). However, much of this was not necessarily new to France – her father had married a Frenchwoman and culinary innovations would have been exchanged then too, and on many other occasions.
In France the sauce developed into a veal velouté – a light sauce made with veal stock, an onion was involved, and a lot of cream added. Chief Steward (an honorary post – he didn’t do any cooking) to Louis XIV, who ruled France from 1638-1715, was Louis de Béchamel.
In 1651, the French chef and cookery writer, François Pierre de la Varenne, wrote Le Cuisinier François. In it he replaced crumbled bread with roux as a means of thickening sauces, and renamed the original salsa colla in honour of the royal steward – it became the béchamel sauce.
In 1854, in his L’art de la cuisine française au dix-neuvième siècle, the chef and writer, Marie-Antoine Carême set down what he considered the four grandes sauces of French cuisine: béchamel, espagnole, velouté, and allemande. Carême is said to have been the first celebrity chef, he certainly had enormous influence on French cuisine at the time, so this categorisation launched the béchamel as a mainstream, classic sauce.
Later (early 20th century), chef and writer, August Escoffier reassigned allemande sauce to be a type of velouté. He added hollandaise and sauce tomate to make the basic five ‘mother’ sauce of today’s classic French cooking. Follow this link for more on ‘mother sauces’.
How to make a basic béchamel sauce
(if you are a home cook looking for easy measurements try 50g butter and 3 tbsps flour, instead of the very specific amounts below)
- 500 ml/2 cups milk – if you are using a measuring cup, warm the milk briefly in the microwave before using. It should be warm, not hot and cooler than the roux, or it will form lumps.
- 65g/2 oz butter
- 65g/4 tbsps flour
- Salt, pepper and nutmeg*
- Melt the butter gently. Add the flour. Stir vigorously using a wooden spoon to a glossy paste.
- Leave to cook for about five minutes, stirring every now and then.
- Add the milk, a little at a time – very slowly at first, stirring well to incorporate after each addition of milk. Do this carefully or you will end up with a very lumpy sauce.
- It will slowly start to thicken. Keep stirring. Some people use a whisk in the latter stages of making this sauce.
- Once you have added all the milk, season, taste, and simmer for about five minutes, stirring every now and then.
To make a thinner or thicker sauce
The amount of roux used in proportion to the liquid will affect the thickness of the final sauce. To thicken a litre of liquid:
- for a thin sauce use 45g butter and 45g (3 tbsps) flour. You would want a thin sauce to make a lasagne
- for a thicker sauce use 65g butter and 65g (4 tbsps) flour
- for a downright thick sauce use 80g butter and 80g (just over 5 tbps) flour. You would want a thick sauce to make a croque monsieur, a soufflé base, or a moussaka.
*A note about the seasoning
The reason for thickening a sauce is to achieve lingering mouthfeel – the food stays longer on the tongue. A thin sauce will have a high momentary flavour impact; the starch in a thickened sauce may reduce the flavour. So you may need to season more generously than you imagined.
To a litre of sauce you can:
- a couple of onions, halves, with cloves used to nail bay leaves to the onions – use this to infuse the milk while you warm it, prior to using. NB – this results in more washing up!
- bay leaves (add while cooking, take out at the end)
Tips for the beginner
- Don’t give up too soon! A béchamel needs a few minutes simmering along with some enthusiastic whisking to reach optimum thickness – when you put a clean spoon in, it should emerge from the sauce coated. Allow 20 minutes to make this sauce. Bear in mind that when you allow the sauce to cool the starch in the sauce will be able to settle into a more stable structure with the liquid trapped between the grains of starch – it will thicken up.
- You will soon get so proficient that you don’t bother to measure the butter and flour; but initially you should. The general rule is equal proportions of both, but some people (Delia Smith, for example) use a bit more flour than fat.
- Cooking the roux for a béchamel takes a little practice and confidence. If you cook it too long it will become a brown roux (see below, different types of roux) and it will make your sauce an unattractive muddy colour. If you don’t cook it enough, the flour will still be effectively raw and give your sauce a nasty taste.
- You will make your sauce more quickly and with less mess (spluttering) if you warm it first.
- Don’t lose patience and add the milk too quickly – that way only leads to lumps!
- You might find it helpful to use a wooden spoon with an angle shape; alternatively I often use a robust cappuccino whisk.
How to save a béchamel sauce
- Too thick? Add more milk
- Too thin? Add a little more roux, or some beurre manié (see below – what is the difference between a roux and beurre manié)
- Too lumpy? Whisk with an electric whisk; or strain through a sieve
Keeping and storing a béchamel sauce
It will keep four or five days in the fridge – cover the surface with cling film first or it will form a skin.
And, oh joy, does béchamel sauce freeze? Yes, it certainly does. So if you have any leftover milk, turn it into béchamel sauce and use as and when you need it. Best used in dishes – pasta bakes, or soufflés for example where the sauce is wholly incorporated. Less wonderful to pour over – eg a parsley sauce to pour over gammon.
The science behind this sauce
The basic premise is that starches absorb liquid. Flour is a type of starch, but there are other types such as arrowroot, cornflour, kuzu root, potato starch, rice flour, and tapioca. Different starches can absorb different amounts of liquid, and can therefore make a sauce thicker or less thick than others. Bread flour, which has more protein and less starch than ordinary flour, is less able to absorb liquid for example.
But a catalyst is needed to get the gluten strands in the flour to ‘open up’, and that catalyst is heat. Without heat the gluten will not react – the flour will simply sink to the bottom of the liquid. Ultra Tex – a starch derived from tapioca – is an exception to this, in that it doesn’t require heat to get the grains to absorb liquid.
Different types of roux, and what they are used for
The fat in roux isn’t always butter – it can be lard, bacon fat, or oil.
The length of time the roux is cooked is key. After a while the grains of the flour will close and therefore they won’t swell up when the liquid is added – they won’t have the same thickening effect.
The molecules of the liquid move more rapidly as they are heated. They bump into the flour grains and disrupt their structure.
Cook the roux for about five minutes.
- béchamel or white sauce
- cream soups
Cook the roux for about ten minutes.
- velouté sauce – made with a roux and a light stock
- light-coloured stews – chicken particularly
- onion sauce to serve with Kalbsbratwurst
Cook the roux for about 30 minutes.
- Espagnole sauce – made from dark stock and tomatoes
- brown soups – for example, Brown Windsor
- gravies for red meat
- braised red meat
Black roux aka a dry roux
Use oil instead of butter as it won’t burn as easily, and cook for 45 minutes (sometimes it’s roasted rather than cooked on the hob. This type of roux develops a nutty flavour – really the raison d’être of this type of roux.Often another thickener will also be used.
- Gumbos and Cajun stews
What is the difference between a roux and beurre manié?
A roux is more or less equal parts of butter and flour, cooked together for a few minutes and then liquid is added.
Beurre manié is equal parts of room temperature butter and flour kneaded together to make into a paste. It’s added at the end of the cooking process if a sauce looks too thin. The trick is to add a little at a time to allow the flour to swell, simmering for a few moments – cooking the raw flour which doesn’t have a good taste.
The flour doesn’t form into clumps when you add a beurre manié because the grains of flour are coated in fat. When you add the beurre manié to a hot sauce the butter melts (enriching its host) and the flour grains are evenly dispersed.
What can you add to a béchamel sauce, and what does it then become
- Crème – add double cream at the end
- Mornay – add Gruyère and/or Parmesan (it’s best with a mix of both); or try Cheddar cheese and a pinch of cayenne, or with mustard and Worcestershire sauce. This can form the basis of a macaroni and cheese, or a cauliflower cheese, or be poured over eggs florentine. For some excellent British alternatives to the better-known French and Swiss melting cheeses, follow this link.
- Good with eggs and vegetables. Can form the basis of a gratin.
- Soubise – add fried and puréed onions. Good with sausages, bacon or mutton, and as a base for all kinds of stews
- Nantua – made with crayfish (you can make it with shrimp), popular in Lyon to coat quenelles of pike
- Albert – made with horseradish. Serve with trout or beef
- Parsley – add onion and parsley, good with gammon or white fish; and with carrots
- Mushrooms – add fried mushrooms, good with veal
- Mustard – add Dijon mustard
- A dairy-free version – replace the butter with olive oil, and the milk with soy milk (the type which has a thickening agent included)
Uses for a béchamel sauce
- croque monsieur (and madame) – you will need the thickest sauce for this
- lasagne – you will need the thinnest sauce for this
- use as a base for a macaroni and cheese
- for scalloped potatoes – bit ’60s
- for croquettas
- for a vegetable gratin
- moussaka and pastitsio
- chicken and ham pie
- fish pie
- corn chowder
- pasta bakes
- to bind the filling for vol au vents
- a base for all kinds of soufflés