Basics that aren’t: Béchamel Sauce (and variations)

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 Béchamel

60g butter
50g flour
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).

Variations

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).

Traditional Mornay

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.

Vegan Béchamel

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.

Other options

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…).

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17 responses to “Basics that aren’t: Béchamel Sauce (and variations)

  1. This is interesting – I have problems with bechemel sometimes, and I think it’s lack of care with measuring. The chestnut flour variation sounds great, too.

  2. I am probably not making correctly, but when I make Béchamel sauce (vegan, for those who don’t know me), I generally aim for a vaguely cheesy flavour as it’s going in lasagne or similar. This involves a bay leaf, nutmeg, a bit of dark soy sauce, a bit of bouillon powder (usually the Marigold brown one, which is quite yeasty) and some nutritional yeast. Very yummy, although the one thing D doesn’t like is how it tastes the next day, when the leftover lasagne has been refrigerated.

    • Thanks for your comment – I’ll be interested to try your cheesy version.

      I actually thought about putting nutritional yeast into mine, à la the good ladies of the Post Punk Kitchen but I was so thrilled with the taste I had that I didn’t want to do anything that might injure it! So yes, my version is not at all cheesy, but very traditionally béchamel.

      • Nutritional yeast is odd stuff, and I’ve found that you have to learn where it tastes really good and where it tastes a bit odd. Adding it straight to a tomato pasta sauce, for instance, is not my favourite. On the other hand, making it up into fake parmesan (with ground almonds and a bit of miso, courtesy of the Uncheese Cookbook) and then sprinkling it on top of that same pasta with sauce is fine. I use a very nice vegan basil pesto which is the proper pesto ingredients minus cheese (as opposed to those weird ones out there with cider vinegar and cashews and I don’t know what else), and if you just add nutritional yeast to that, it’s gorgeous. Béchamel sauce is one of the areas where it works nicely, and depending on how much you put it, it can be anything from traditionally Béchamel to fake cheese sauce. Have fun experimenting, and let me know what you find!

  3. Well there you go, I’ve been making bechamel and not realising it.

    Mum has a tuna casserole recipe that calls for (what I now know, from the process described) bechamel. I can vouch for the fact that adding tomato paste and/or dijon mustard to it gives a nice flavour. Also poaching some garlic cloves in the milk.

    I’m definitely going to try the using ht milk and a whisk tips, as I hate waiting for it to thicken up!

    • Yes, that sounds about right! Actually, I think when you add tomato sauce you get to call it Aurore, but since I don’t remember where I read that, don’t quote me on it!

      Bechamel sauce is, of course, the whole point of tuna casserole… though my tuna casserole has developed so many veggies over the years that I frequently run out of room for the tuna, and it becomes yet another vegetable and pasta bake!

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  10. Must try the Chestnut Flour version! I like using a bit of mushroom liquor (water that dried mushrooms have been reconstituted in) in place of some of the milk. I am also a fan of using Jersey milk for extra richness if it’s a special occasion.

    • Mushroom liquor would go very well with chestnut flour, I would think – they both have that very ‘brown’ flavour.

      I’m not sure whether one can get Jersey milk here – I rather doubt it – but I do think that it works especially well with the really creamy organic, free-range milk we get from Jonesy’s here.

  11. Delicious! I made mine with coconut milk (not having any dairy milk on hand) and after infusing it with fresh thyme, parsley, onion, dried bay leaves, cracked pepper, and nutmeg, I stirred it into the roux in which I had sauteed onion and garlic. SO GOOD. Thanks for the fabulous directions, this was the first time I’ve ever tried my hand at saucemaking!

    • Wow, that sounds really interesting – I hadn’t really discovered coconut milk when I wrote this recipe, and it suggests all sorts of flavour possibilities…

      I’m so glad you found the directions helpful – I learned to cook from cookbooks myself, so I don’t underestimate the importance of a recipe that makes no assumptions…

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