Thursday, September 2, 2010

Hands On - Bechamel

Some people call bechamel (beh-sha-mel') sauce, a classic French sauce,  a master sauce.  Others call it a "mother sauce".  The Italians call it "besciamella" and often use it in lasagne.   I call it a power sauce because it is the foundation of so many classic and popular dishes.  If you can make bechamel you will never be at a loss for throwing together a more than passable meal.  Here in the Midwest it is probably best to call this sauce "white sauce" or "cream sauce".  Cream sauce is a misnomer because this sauce almost never is made with cream.   For sure don't call it bechamel if you are at a church potluck and somebody wants to know the recipe for your fabulous macaroni and cheese.  They might think you are putting on airs - at least if the church is located in my part of Minnesota.

No matter the name, this sauce is a versatile tool to have in your culinary toolbox.  It is the base for souffles, cream soups and gratins.  My assignment for you, should you choose to accept it, is to learn the ingredients and steps by heart.  No reason why you can't be off book within the week. 

So let's get started.  This is a very simple process, but you do need to pay attention to the details of execution.  A little extra care will help you avoid dreaded lumps.  One thing you are going for in a white sauce is smoothness.

Ingredients (This will make about 2 1/2  cups of sauce.  This recipe is easily doubled.
4 T. (same as 1/2 stick or quarter cup) butter or olive oil or a combination (In Provence it is common to use olive oil to make bechamel)
4 T. (1/4 cup) white flour
2 c. milk (skim is fine.  If you want a richer sauce, use 2 % or whole.  Don't use half and half or cream unless you have some special reason for going over the top. )
1/2 t. salt
1/4 t. pepper (white pepper is nice)
(Note about thickness - this recipe results in what I would call a medium thick bechamel.  If you want a thicker sauce, use less milk - about 1 1/2 cups.   For a thinner sauce, use more - about 3 cups.  Remember it is easy to add more milk - so if you are in doubt, start with less milk and add more until desired consistency is reached.)

Optional seasonings -- The classic flavoring is to add a chunk of onion studded with a few cloves when you add the milk.  The onion is removed at the end of the cooking process.  I have seen other recipes call for as much as 1/2 t. of nutmeg.  Nutmeg is good in this sauce, but I would start with just a pinch.  Half a teaspoon is a lot, depending on the intended use for the sauce.  Cayenne pepper is another optional seasoning.  Again, start with a pinch.  You can always add more. 

The sky is the limit with many fresh or dried herbs or spices.  Use your judgment and taste buds to decide what and how much to use.  Many recipes calling for bechamel will give you suggestions for seasoning.  See variations below for more seasoning ideas.

Heavy saucepan
Whisk (you could use a spoon but a whisk makes this SO much easier)
Measuring spoons and cup
Something to heat the milk in

The roux - this includes a tablespoon of minced shallots
Melt butter.  Add flour and whisk into a paste over medium heat.  You are now making a roux (roo).  Yes this is another French word and you just have to use it.  I think it has become an English word too, because there is no other good name for this basic butter/flour mixture.  Cook about 5 minutes, stirring frequently.  You do want to keep a close eye on things at this point.  Avoid cooking longer than 5 minutes because it will diminish the thickening power of the roux.
Add milk slowly, whisking all the while
Add milk - about 1/4 cup at a time - and keep whisking over the heat.   I recommend that you heat the milk before you add it -- more than just warm and less than boiling.  Some cooks prefer using unheated milk.  That will work but in my experience you are more apt to have problems with lumps if you use cold or even room temperature milk.  You can experiment for yourself.
See the little bubbles on the edges - now it is thickening
The mixture should starting bubbling and thickening fairly soon - if it does not, turn up the heat a bit.  Once this happens, turn down the heat and simmer gently about 10 minutes - you are doing this to eliminate any residual raw flour taste.  Now you don't have to watch so closely - but stir every few minutes.  What you want to avoid is scorching.  A rubber spatula is nice to make sure nothing is burning or sticking to the sides or bottom of the pan.

Once you get comfortable with the basic recipe AND HAVE IT MEMORIZED - then you can play around with variations.   Here are a few common ones.

1.  Onion or shallots -- it is very common for bechamel to include onions or shallots or even scallions. If you wish to use them, add about 2 T.  finely chopped per 1 T. of butter and saute them for a few minutes in the butter before you add the flour.  Many recipes call for straining out the onions at the end.  Unless it is really important that the sauce be perfectly smooth, I would just skip that step.  Especially if you are making a thick sauce, straining would be slow and messy.  Another alternative would be to add the chopped onions to the heated milk and let steep about half hour to allow the flavor to permeate the milk.  Strain onions from the milk before whisking into the roux.

2.  Mornay sauce - add 2 cups or more grated gruyere cheese (Swiss cheese would work too.)

3.  Veloute (vel-oo-tay) sauce - Substitute vegetable chicken or fish stock for half or more of the milk.

4.  Cheddar sauce - add 1 t. each dried powdered mustard and Worcestershire sauce and 1 cup or more grated sharp cheddar.  You can use this with macaroni and never have to buy a box mix again.  As long as you have milk, butter, flour, cheddar, pasta and some seasonings around,  you are in business.

5.  Mustard sauce - add about 1 T of a grainy or Dijon type mustard to the sauce.  This would be good with steamed brussels sprouts.

6.  Horseradish sauce - add 1 T or more prepared Horseradish sauce to the bechamel.  This would be a good sauce for creamed potatoes served with a beef entree such as meatloaf or pot roast or even steak.

7.  Lemon caper sauce - add 1 T fresh lemon juice and a little finely grated lemon peel and some chopped capers to taste.

8.  Mushroom sauce - add chopped cooked mushrooms to the sauce.  (If you have liquid from soaking dried mushrooms, strain it and add to the sauce in place of some of the milk.)  If you have a favorite casserole recipe that calls for cream of mushroom soup -- you can use mushroom bechamel sauce instead!!  Good bye industrial soup with additives, preservatives, artificial flavorings and thickeners.  Hello home made in a flash from scratch.

9.  Herb sauce -- Add  your choice of fresh or dried herbs.  For example, if you are making creamed peas add a little chopped mint.  If you are making creamed carrots add a little parsley and thyme.

10.  Vegetable gratin --Mix cooked vegetables of your choice with bechamel seasoned as you choose.  Put in a shallow baking dish.  Sprinkle grated cheese or buttered bread crumbs or both generously on top.  Broil until heated through and lightly browned on top.  The possibilities for gratins are limitless.  They are a great way to use leftovers - e.g. add a little chopped ham or chicken or cooked grain or pasta and you have an elegant meal.

Here is a pretty good video showing you how to make bechamel.  The proportions call for a thicker sauce than my recipe - but the techniques are the same.


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