Back to Basics: Béchamel

21 Jan

In The Making of a Chef , Michael Ruhlman recalls that nearly everyone in his Skills One class at the Culinary Institute of America scorched the first béchamel sauce that they attempted. He vividly describes the mountain of pots lined with scorched flour/butter/milk piled in the sink. Upon reading this, I smiled to myself:

“Oh, I remember that.”

I cannot count the number of times during college that I stood (highly annoyed) scrubbing stuck-on roux off of the bottom of my only saucepan. Irritated, I’d grab On Cooking off of my bookshelf and wonder, “What did I do wrong this time?” The number of things that could go wrong with such a simple sauce astounded me: Wrong pan. Pan too hot. Milk too cold. Milk too hot. Flour and butter not cooked enough. Gritty consistency. Raw floury taste. Burnt taste.

I hope to help my dear readers avoid that angst. This is how I make my white sauce and, inspired by the passage from Ruhlman’s book, I thought it was worth sharing.

Carl Sagan once wrote that “if you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.” I say that if you want to make the perfect macaroni and cheese, you must first create the béchamel.

Unlike other mother sauces that begin with long-cooking stock, the beauty of béchamel is in its simplicity and relatively short cooking time. It is a post-work weeknight sauce.

Begin by pouring one cup of milk—in my opinion, 2% yields the best consistency and mouth feel—into a small saucepan. Add a bay leaf, bring the milk to a boil and then remove the pan from the heat and cover it.

In a medium saucepan, combine 1 oz. of butter and 1 oz. of flour over very low heat to make a roux. The roux will act as the thickener in this sauce. Using a pan with sloped sides is very important. You don’t want your roux getting stuck in the corners of a straight-sided pan and scorching. Not only will that undoubtedly ruin the flavor of your sauce, but lost roux means a watery, runny consistency.

As the butter melts, mix it with the flour to form a paste. There are various stages of cooking a roux. For béchamel sauce, cook on low heat only until it is just golden. The more a roux is cooked, the more flavor it develops, but the trade-off is that it loses its thickening ability. Darker roux are frequently used for brown sauces, gumbos and stews.

Now it is time to add the milk to the roux. Patience is the key here. Think about making an emulsion. If you’ve ever made mayonnaise you know that if you add the oil to the egg yolks too fast, the mixture will break and you will be left with a messy oil slick instead of a creamy mayonnaise. In this case, if you add the milk too quickly (or use cold milk) the sauce will be lumpy and/or grainy. How sad. So begin whisking the roux before any milk even touches the pan and add the scalded milk in a thin, steady stream.

Whisk, whisk, whisk. Turn the heat up to medium and do not stop whisking. Within a few minutes, the sauce will thicken and begin to bubble. At this point, add a few pinches of salt and taste the sauce. It will probably still have a little bit of raw, starchy taste. Cook, stirring continuously for 5-6 more minutes until the sauce is velvety and coats the back of a spoon. Add a few pinches of freshly grated nutmeg, stir, and taste again. If you like how it tastes, stop there.

Think, I mean really think, about how your sauce tastes. Yes, béchamel is often just a base, but it’s like building house: If you don’t have a good foundation, the rest is just going to crumble. So take time to make your base well and the final product will reward your taste buds. Taste, season, and taste again. Remove the bay leaf before serving.

Now you have your béchamel, or white sauce, and you can get creative. Add a handful of your favorite cheese and stir until it melts—that goes great over pasta and vegetables (I LOVE it on broccoli), use it unadulterated as lasagna or moussaka filling, or add a small onion that has been very finely diced and sweated in butter to make sauce soubise—which is excellent with grilled meat.

So there you have it: Delicious white sauce that takes less than 20 minutes to make. Experiment and enjoy.

Ciao for now,

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