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What Is Béchamel?
Béchamel is a versatile white sauce and the base of a variety of comfort food dishes. As one of five mother sauces in French cuisine, it’s versatile and easy to master, with only a few ingredients—butter, milk, flour, eggs, and salt.
The origins of this basic white sauce may in fact be Italian, with the recipe for Renaissance-era besciamella making its way to the courts of Louis XIV in France with the chefs of Catherine de Medici. Back then, it was made from butter, flour, and milk, and eventually evolved to include steeping aromatics like bay leaf and shallots in the milk before adding it to the butter and flour. (It is not, however, the same as true alfredo sauce, which is pasta tossed with a sauce made from Parmesan cheese and butter.)
These days, the sauce is most often finished with a bit of salt and black pepper, plus a few good grates of fresh nutmeg—that’s it.
Classic Béchamel Base: What Is Roux?
Béchamel starts with a classic French roux: a few tablespoons of flour and a few tablespoons of fat—usually butter—cooked together in a heavy saucepan to form a thick paste before the addition of milk. A béchamel is built from a white roux, or one that has been cooked very quickly to maintain its light color and subtle, nutty flavors. Milk is slowly whisked into the mixture and cooked until it takes on a creamy consistency.
Tips for Making Perfect Béchamel
All home cooks should master the mother sauces—and like any pursuit of mastery, practice makes perfect. Here’s a few things to remember on your quest for perfect béchamel:
- Avoid lumps. By adding warm milk to your roux in increments, you allow the roux to accept the liquid evenly and at a controllable pace. Adding all the milk at once will cause the paste to “shock,” almost immediately creating lumps that are difficult to whisk out.
- Add more roux. If your béchamel comes out too thin, even after cooking it for the required 10 minutes or so, you can always whip up a quick second batch of roux and build it back in. You’ll know béchamel is done, and the right consistency, when it coats the back of a wooden spoon.
- Make it vegan. To make vegan béchamel, simply swap the milk and butter for equal amounts of non-dairy alternatives like vegan butter and soy milk.
What to Serve With Béchamel Sauce: Recipe Ideas
As a foundational sauce, béchamel can be incorporated into any number of dishes for a creamy effect:
- Chef Wolfgang Puck’s Mac and Cheese. Wolfgang transforms his béchamel into a Mornay cheese sauce by adding cheddar and mozzarella cheese, which becomes the base for this macaroni and cheese.
- Chef Wolfgang Puck’s Creamed Spinach. Béchamel also provides the foundation of one of Wolfgang’s favorite childhood meals: creamed spinach topped with a fried egg.
- Baked rigatoni
- Mushroom and goat cheese pizza
- Italian-style potato gratin
- Layered with a ragu between sheets of fresh pasta for a lasagna bolognese
- Croque monsieur
- Mixed with sausage for a country-style white gravy
Wolfgang Puck’s Easy Béchamel Sauce Recipe
For a smooth sauce with perfect viscosity, follow the precise order of steps and the correct temperatures and quantities laid out here.
- 5 tbsp unsalted butter
- 1/4 cup all purpose flour
- 4 cups whole milk
- 2 egg yolks
- 2 tsp kosher salt
- 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
- In a medium saucepot over medium heat, warm the butter until melted. Gradually add flour and stir with a wooden spoon until smooth.
- Cook the mixture for 2–3 minutes, keeping a close eye on it to avoid unwanted burning. In a separate saucepot, heat the milk until it is just about to boil.
- Add the hot milk to the butter mixture, ½ cup at a time, constantly whisking. Cook 12 minutes, stirring constantly. Turn heat off.
- Slowly stir in 1 egg yolk at a time. Season with salt and nutmeg.