Today for all the newbies, I present sauce béchamel. This classic recipe is one of the mother sauces, and a vital part of any good cook’s culinary arsenal. Everyday cooks refer to this as “basic white sauce.” It is the foundation of frou-frou recipes like macaroni and cheese, lasagna, and chowder. But made properly, this is a delicious sauce that can stand on its own (although it is rarely seen that way … but I like it).
The recipe begins with a roux, another essential technique. Butter and flour is used as a thickener, and in this instance, used to thicken milk. Sounds flavorless, I know, but the ingredients make all the difference. Good butter and milk can turn what looks like wallpaper paste into a lip smack’n goodness. Yes…I said, “lip smack’n.”
Butter, flour, and milk are the bare-bones ingredients, but there are some additional things that add a distinctly French flavor. The first is nutmeg. While most Americans think of it as a spice for pastries, the French use it to enhance everything starchy including custard, potatoes, and egg dishes. The second weird-ish ingredient is onion piqué, otherwise known as an onion studded with cloves that hold on bay leaves like thumb tacks.
Not a clove of garlic, but cloves, another spice used in the West mainly as a sweet spice (and smoked by every college-age hipster dufus). Cloves are used extensively in spice mixes and curries around the world. Bay leaf, another of my favorite spices, is added, as is salt and white pepper. White pepper is not use for its lack of color as much as it is for its slight heat.
Onion piqué is classically a whole peeled onion stuck with bay and cloves. Because I rarely make a recipe of béchamel big enough to hold a whole onion, I use a quarter of an onion, and throw the clove and bay leaf into the pot loosey-goosey. Many chefs disagree with this technique, as a cut onion is more potent than a whole onion. Once cut, the onions oils escape into the dish. But I like the onion flavor, and I am not offended at all by its oils. (I am offended by snooty chefs.) Besides, small onions are hard to find. Sure, I could use pearl onions, but that’s another flavor entirely. Duh! Jeez!
Here is the basic recipe. See the variations that follow for some more ideas.
2 ounces (1/4 stick or 2 TB.) unsalted butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 quart milk, warmed
1 quarter small yellow onion
1 bay leaf
a pinch of kosher salt
a pinch white pepper
4 scrapes of a whole nutmeg across the grater, or about 1/8 tsp.
- In a heavy saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Add flour and stir until well absorbed. Slowly add warmed milk, 2-3 tablespoons at a time at first, whisking vigorously. Once milk is absorbed add more, and continue in this fashion until all the milk is in and you have a thick sauce.
- Add the onion, bay, clove and nutmeg. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 15-30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Adjust consistency with more milk if necessary (depending on the recipe you’re using it in), add salt and pepper, and strain through a fine mesh strainer. Use immediately, or cover with plastic wrap pressed directly on the surface to prevent a skin from forming.
Béchamel can be refrigerated for use 2-3 days ahead.
Mornay Sauce: Add 1/2 cup grated Gruyere (or Swiss) cheese to the finished sauce. Or use a good, sharp white cheddar for killer mac’n’cheese.
Sauce Soubis: before adding the flour, caramelize a whole chopped onion in the butter, until light golden brown.
Tomato Soubis: Add to the above variation 1 cup of tomato puree.
Sauce Nantua: Before adding the flour, sauté 1 cup of crayfish or shrimp (shells and meat) in the butter. Before straining the finished sauce, puree it, shells and all, to release as much seafood flavor as possible.
Cream Sauce: Use heavy cream instead of milk. Then take a lap.
Sauce Velouté: Though technically another mother sauce and not a béchamel variation, it is made the same way, using stock instead of milk.