MAKING A CLASSIC BÉCHAMEL
Béchamel is a really simple sauce made from butter, flour and milk, which can form the base of lots of other sauces. I use it to make cheese sauce for lasagne and pasta bakes, parsley sauce for fish and many other concoctions.
Below I will show you the most basic of methods, followed by some options for jazzing it up.
- A large knob of butter (50 – 100g)
- A few table spoons of plain flour
- About 500ml milk
As you will see, I’m not great at specifying quantities. I never tend to measure out my ingredients when making a white sauce. Basically I go by the rule that the more sauce I need, the more butter I’ll use at the beginning. I then add enough flour for that amount of butter and enough milk to create the right consistency.
First you melt down the butter in a sauce pan on a low-medium heat. Then add the flour a spoonful at a time, stirring it in until it forms a paste-like texture – this is called a ‘roux‘. Use as much flour as you need to form the paste – it’s a lovely, almost silky texture which should come away from the sides of the pan.
If it starts bubbling a bit too much or burning to the pan, take it off the heat, or reduce the heat, then slowly add the milk. I tend to keep the pan on a low heat whilst adding the milk, stirring until the consistency is right. Sometimes, when I’m not paying attention and add too much milk at once, lumps appear and it turns in to a watery, lumpy mess. This is fine! Just use a whisk to stir it for a while over the heat and it will reduce and turn nice and creamy. Then add salt and pepper to taste.
JAZZ UP YOUR BÉCHAMEL
Posh Béchamel – Proper chefs would probably be appalled that I suggest just using plain milk, as a classic french béchamel should be made with seasoned milk. You can do this by piercing an onion with some cloves and floating it in the milk whilst heating in a pan. Pop in some salt, pepper and a bay leaf too. Simmer this on a low heat (don’t let the milk boil) until the onion is soft (about 20mins). Then drain the milk and use it to make the sauce.
CONFESSION: I only ever do this when I’m cooking for guests, because life is too short. Especially when making a last minute tuna pasta bake for me and my husband on a Sunday night. In fact – some times, when the little bit of milk I have left runs out and the sauce is still too thick, I just top it up with water. Shhh, don’t tell!
Lasagne/Pasta Bakes – Just add cheese. I tend to grate a mix of mature cheddar and Parmigiano-Reggiano in to the white sauce until it’s cheesy enough for my taste. Use this to stir in to a pasta bake before baking, or layer on to your lasagna.
Parsley Sauce – Squeeze in some lemon juice (zest too, if you fancy) and add some fresh chopped parsley and you’ve got an easy, creamy sauce for your sea bass.
Creamy Leeks – This is always a winner when I cook for people – I usually serve this as a side with a Sunday roast. You basically make the béchamel around the leeks.
Fry off the leeks in lots of butter until they are cooked, then add the flour directly on to the leeks, so you’re making the roux with them in it. Then slowly add the milk and stir until you have a lovely, creamy pan full of leeks. Add salt & pepper and dig in!
Bread Sauce – Not actually a béchamel, but another step on from the onion/clove milk step and another good accompaniment for a Sunday roast. Once you’ve soaked the onion, drain the milk in to a bowl and then return it to the empty pan. I then chop up the soggy onion (having removed the cloves) and add it back to the milk. Then add chopped up bread/bread crumbs to the mix and season with salt, pepper and a dash of ground nutmeg.
SUBSTITUTIONS FOR ALLERGIES/HEALTHIER ALTERNATIVES
Gluten Free – You can substitute plain flour for corn flour. Corn flour is very fine so the texture of the roux is slightly different (a bit sloppier), but this is fine. Don’t be tempted to add too much corn flour because it is a strong thickening agent and you will end up having to add a lot of liquid to form a smooth consistency.
Dairy Free – Try using your regular substitute for milk. Different soy/oat/almond milks may have different effects – I haven’t tried them all. But most will work fine if you add them slowly to the mix.
Low Fat – You could substitute the butter for other fats, or use skimmed milk to reduce the fat content.
General Advice: I tend to avoid anything labelled ‘low fat/fat free’ because when you check the ingredients, there tends to be additives and sugars listed where there wouldn’t be in the full fat versions. I always go full fat, but try not to use too much, or eat too much of it. It’s all about moderation.