One of the “mother sauces” of classic French cuisine, and what mothers in this country often call a “white sauce,” béchamel (bay-shah-MEHL or BEH-shah-mehl) is made by stirring milk into a flour and butter roux.
“Mother” is an apt description, because the versatile béchamel gives birth to several sauces and countless dishes. With the addition of cheese, béchamel becomes Mornay sauce. Substitute stock for milk, and you have velouté.
Béchamel is layered in lasagna and moussaka and blankets vegetables in gratins. Thin versions serve as enhancements, while sturdy versions bind croquettes, thicken soups and form the foundation for soufflés. Here’s a quick video on how to make the sauce:
The thickness of the sauce is determined by the ratio of milk to roux. Traditional recipes call for steeping flavorings like onion, nutmeg and bay leaf in hot milk prior to preparation, but contemporary cooks often skip this step. For a béchamel of medium thickness, melt two tablespoons of butter in a saucepan over medium heat, then add three tablespoons of flour. Cook and stir until roux is just golden, then gradually add a cup of milk, cooking and stirring until thick and bubbling. Season with salt, pepper and a dash of nutmeg.
Another way to create a creamy sauce is to use a beurre manié (burr mahn-YAY). Beurre manié (French for “kneaded butter”) is equal portions of flour and butter stirred into dish after cooking. It’s useful for gravies, pan sauces and stews like beef bourguignon. As an alternative, you can thicken a sauce by adding slurry of one tablespoon cornstarch and two tablespoons of cold water.
—By Jo Marshall, a food writer in Deephaven, Minn.