Ah, béchamel sauce. As I wrote yesterday, it is one of the great culinary classics that dates back at least as far as the kitchens of Antonin Carême and probably further… but it’s also a definitive ingredient in comfort foods ranging from tuna mornay to lasagne (vegetarian or otherwise) to cauliflower cheese. Hmm, looking at that list, it has a very retro feel to it – is it comfort food because it represents the food of our childhoods, or is it just that there are few things more cozy on a cold night than a dish of something covered with hot, cheesy sauce?
Béchamel sauce is one of those things that isn’t hard except when it is. If I’m paying attention, not doing anything else in the kitchen and, ideally, following a recipe (at least as far as quantities of ingredients are concerned), I can make a good béchamel in under ten minutes. If I’m tired, distracted, too lazy to measure out my flour or too rushed to add my milk properly, it will be a disaster – despite the fact that I generally make béchamel at least once a week.
So here’s a basic béchamel recipe which states, I hope, all the things that are obvious and all the things that might be less obvious in getting it to work. Having just spent several hours making variations on béchamel, I feel I can say with some confidence that if you follow this recipe, you will get a good sauce. (And if you are vegan, gluten intolerant, lactose intolerant, or just interested in variant sauces, keep reading your way down the page – I promise you’ll find something tasty there that you can eat).
Catherine’s Easy Béchamel60g butter
550ml milk – heated, if you like; this will make it thicken faster.
salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste
Melt the butter in a smallish saucepan over low-medium heat. Add the flour, and whisk together until smooth. Continue whisking for a minute or so to let the flour cook a bit. Incidentally, if you’ve been using a wooden spoon all these years, I highly recommend trying a whisk instead. I only figured this out a few years back, but suddenly my success rate at non-lumpy béchamel sauce went up significantly.
Pour in a very small amount of the milk, and whisk until smooth. Keep adding the milk in small amounts, whisking each time until it is incorporated – this is not the time to be impatient, because you really will get lumps if you pour in all the milk too fast. You’d think I’d know this by now, but I still get impatient on a regular basis and muck it up… Once you’ve added about half the milk, you’ll find that you can more or less pour it in continuously, if you keep the stream relatively slow and whisk like mad.
Then, you keep stirring with your whisk. Don’t wander off to find the pasta or feed the cat. You can up the heat a bit though, if you are feeling impatient. What you are waiting for is for the mixture to thicken, which will happen just as it is beginning to reach boiling point. Don’t be tempted to add more flour, or to add cheese just yet – I promise that if you’ve kept these proportions it will thicken eventually.
When it reaches the desired thickness, you can switch off the heat and stir in your seasonings. You can use a spoon for this part. If you like your sauce with cheese in it, now is the time to add it (crumbled or grated, of course).
In the style of Antonin Carême
If you have time, it really is rather nice if you heat the milk gently first with a bay leaf or two (or a bouquet garni, if you have one), a halved onion and some peppercorns. Heat it very slowly, and switch off the heat just as it is about to boil, then leave it to infuse for a few minutes, before straining and using in the béchamel. As a bonus, the hot milk makes the sauce come together much faster and very smoothly, and it tastes lovely, though you do end up with more washing up.
With lots of cheese
If I’m making a big batch of lasagne, rather than doubling the quantities of béchamel, I like to stir in a tub of ricotta. And then I add grated parmesan, just in case there wasn’t enough cheese…
With goats’ milk
You can substitute goats’ milk into the standard recipe for a subtle chêvre flavour. It’s slightly lower in lactose, too, especially if you use a dairy-free margarine instead of the butter. I made this with gluten-free flour and without nutmeg for a friend who can’t eat the nutmeg, and while my friend really liked it, I felt it was absolutely crying out for nutmeg, so don’t skip it if you can help it. This would be fun in a lasagne with roast beetroot, but I’d probably crumble in a little goats’ cheese to lift it (because you can never have enough cheese).
Once the sauce has thickened, beat in 2 tablespoons of grated cheddar, ½ a teaspoon of Dijon mustard and extra salt and pepper to taste. If you like, you can also add ¼ cup of cream.
Gluten Free Béchamel
You can make a good gluten-free béchamel by substituting rice flour, quinoa flour, or a combination of both for the plain flour in this recipe – though do bear in mind that quinoa has a fairly strong flavour (a bit wholemeal and a bit nutty), which will try to dominate if you let it.
Another really delicious option is to use chestnut flour, which gives the sauce a wonderfully luxurious depth of flavour that I find somewhat reminiscent of porcini mushrooms. You want to add a bit more salt and nutmeg to this than you would normally, to bring out the flavour. It doesn’t really taste like béchamel any more, but personally I think it tastes better, and I’d eat it on a mornay any day. Or maybe I’d sautée up some mushrooms to mix in and pour the whole lot over some grilled chicken breasts. Oh, boy, now I want that for dinner…
All the gluten-free options above are also low in fructose.
Heat 675ml of good soy milk (I recommend Bonsoy) with one onion, cut in half, two small bay leaves and 9 peppercorns, as in the Carême variation above.
Melt 60g of dairy-free margarine, such as Nuttelex, and then whisk in 1 tsp Dijon mustard and 50g flour (you can, of course, use a gluten free flour if you need to). Follow the standard recipe.
This recipe is, obviously, also lactose-free, and can be made gluten-free quite easily.
I have to say, I was astonished by how well this worked – I’m not at all partial to soy milk, but I couldn’t tell it was there; this really tasted like a traditional béchamel to me. I’d like to use this in a vegan pasta bake with lots of vegetables, and a topping of breadcrumbs mixed with pine-nuts, garlic and parsley. Yum.
Honestly, there are so many variations for this sauce. You can sautée onion, leek or garlic in the butter before adding the flour (you’ll need to use a little more butter than in my recipe, though), you can flavour it with any herbs or spices you like, you can substitute stock or white wine for part of the milk, you can add cream or any kind of cheese at the end, you can make it green with chopped spinach (again at the end)… the possibilities are endless. I’d love to hear your suggestions and variations, too.
And really, it isn’t that hard to make a good béchamel so long as you add the milk slowly, use a proper whisk, don’t heat it faster than you can stir it, and don’t wander off to do something else in the middle of the recipe (unless, of course, you have a minion who can be trusted to stir it constantly while your attention is elsewhere…).