A béchamel or white sauce is the one of the cornerstones of French cuisine. Often described as a ‘mother sauce’, this versatile white sauce made from butter, flour and milk can be used in vast array of dishes, and forms the base for many other sauces.
Béchamel sauce is used in lasagna, moussaka, fish pie, macaroni or cauliflower cheese, and is the base for a soufflé. Throw some extra ingredients into your béchamel and you’ve a new sauce. For example, add some cheese to make the classic mornay sauce; some sauté mushrooms and a splash of wine white for a delicious pasta sauce or toss in a handful of chopped parsley for the traditional accompaniment to fish or baked ham.
How to make a béchamel sauce
1. Melt the butter in a heavy-based saucepan over a medium heat and then stir in the flour using a wooden spoon to create what the French call a roux – a doughy paste. Cook this for a minute or so, stirring all the time, to remove the flour’s raw taste.
2. The secret to avoiding a lumpy béchamel sauce is to work slowly when adding the cold milk. Add just a little of the milk – about 50ml – and stir vigorously to make a smooth, glossy paste. Continue to add the milk in small amounts while continually stirring, waiting for the milk to be incorporated before adding the next amount. The mixture will become loose in consistency.
3. When you’ve added about half the milk, swap your wooden spoon for a balloon whisk – this will help remove any small lumps in the sauce – and gradually add the rest of the milk, continuing to whisk briskly. You should now have a smooth, thin creamy sauce.
4. Lower the heat and let the sauce cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes until thickened. It should be thick enough to coat the back of the wooden spoon when it’s ready.
5. Season with salt and pepper and, if using, a little grated nutmeg. If not using straightaway, pour the sauce into a bowl or jug and cover the surface closely with cling-film to stop a skin forming.
If the roux thickens too quickly when first adding the milk, remove the saucepan from the heat. Continue to stir and slowly add the milk – the saucepan residual heat will carry on the cooking – until the roux relaxes and becomes increasingly liquid as the milk is added. Return to the heat and carry on with the recipe.