Learning how to make bechamel sauce comes right after learning proper knife skills in a French kitchen. Bechamel is creamy, luxurious, and comforting in the form of one glorious sauce.
Also known as white sauce, bechamel consists of a perfect combination of milk, flour, and butter. Interestingly, bechamel sauce was not always this simple.
Bechamel sauce used to also contain cream and eggs, a rich mixture fit for the kings and queens it was served to. It wasn’t until French, culinary mastermind Auguste Escoffier simplified the recipe in the 19th century that bechamel sauce became the 3-ingredient recipe it is today.
Now, cream and eggs are simply noted as additional enrichments to a basic bechamel sauce rather than necessary ingredients.
Thick or Thin
Like any sauce, bechamel can be prepared to be thick or thin in consistency. Perhaps you’re making fresh fish and would prefer to keep the bechamel on the thinner side as a light topping. Or, maybe you’re making a pasta dish and looking for a luscious sauce that will graciously coat all the pasta.
The key to determining how thick or thin your bechamel ends up is dependent on 2 factors: what ratio of flour to butter you use, and how long you cook your sauce.
I prefer Julia Child’s method of a 2:1 ratio of flour to butter. For example, for 1 cup of bechamel sauce, I’ll use 2 U.S. tablespoons of all-purpose flour to 1 U.S. tablespoon of unsalted butter.
This ratio will provide a thicker bechamel than an equal ratio, even if you don’t cook the sauce very long.
Still, cooking time matters. The more you cook your bechamel over the stove, the thicker it will get. Eventually, if you cook it long enough, it will even obtain a melted cheese-like consistency, where it appears as though the sauce can stretch.
Depending on how thick you want your bechamel sauce to be, it’s something to be mindful of.
Speaking of Cheese
The beauty of bechamel sauce is that it’s a starting point for a variety of other French sauces. Once you create your basic bechamel, you can tweak it to create other sauces, such as a mornay sauce.
A mornay sauce is similar to bechamel with the only difference being added cheese to the finished bechamel.
You can add tomato paste for a sauce aurore, or white wine and tarragon for a sauce chivry. There are so many possibilities to elevate your dishes once you know how to make a standard bechamel sauce.
One chef secret I’ve learned to making a superb bechamel sauce is to infuse the milk with onion, cloves and bay leaves prior to combining the hot milk with the roux. This adds fantastic flavor to the bechamel sauce and elevates it beyond the way most cooks prepare their sauce.
Keep it Smooth
Whatever you decide to add to your sauce, it’s important to keep bechamel sauce smooth. No one likes flour-y clumps in their bechamel.
In order to make your bechamel sauce silky smooth, it’s important that your butter and flour mixture are just as warm as the milk when the two are combined.
Chefs like Jacques Pepin have suggested creating a beurre manié, which is like a dough or paste made of butter and flour. This is then added to the hot milk. However, I have found Julia Child’s method of combining a warm roux (butter and flour that is warmed in a pan) to be the easiest method for thickening the hot milk.
Julia Child’s method seems to be the most foolproof way to avoid an uphill battle of trying to whisk out the clumps in your sauce.
Once the hot (but not boiled) milk and hot roux are combined, keep whisking until the sauce is smooth and as thick as you like.
Pairing Bechamel Sauce
Kids particularly might find themselves more apt to eating their broccoli if you’ve got a little bechamel sauce poured on top.
Once you’ve created a perfect bechamel, feel free to add in extra herbs, maybe a pinch of nutmeg, or a pinch of cayenne. The sauce can be a wonderful canvas for your creativity!
A French mother sauce for a reason! Bechamel is a creamy white sauce that's perfect for a variety of dishes, including pasta, chicken, seafood, veggies, and more. Makes 1 cup.
- 1 cup whole milk 245 grams
- 2 tbsp all-purpose flour 15.6 grams
- 1 tbsp unsalted butter 14 grams
- 1/2 tsp salt (2.8 grams), or to taste
- 1/8 tsp freshly ground pepper .29 grams
In a medium saucepan over medium heat, warm the milk until steam begins to rise from the milk. The milk along the edges of the pan should just begin to simmer, but don't let the milk boil.
Meanwhile, in another medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Once the butter has melted, add the flour and stir the two together to form a paste-like mixture (a roux). Continue stirring for about 1 minute, until the roux becomes bubbly. Move the roux off the heat.
Slowly stream the hot milk into the prepared roux, whisking the mixture vigorously as you do. Transfer the entire mixture back to the stove over medium heat, and whisk until its smooth and as thick as you'd like it to be. The longer you cook the mixture (and effectively reduce it), the thicker it will be.
Move the sauce off the heat; stir in the salt and pepper. Taste test for salt and add more if desired. If you won't be immediately using it, run a rubber spatula against the side of the pan, then pour a thin layer of milk over the top to prevent a layer of skin forming on the top. Reheat over low heat when you're ready to use.
The amount of sauce created (1 cup) will be enough for about 8 oz. of pasta (like in a macaroni dish) or as a topping for entrée dishes that will serve 4 people (such as chicken and fish).
To make a thinner sauce, use an equal ratio of butter and flour (1 tbsp flour + 1 tbsp butter).
If you use this recipe and your sauce appears too thick for your liking, simply stream in a tablespoon of milk at a time, whisking after each addition. Add until you get your desired consistency.
If your prepared roux is hot and the milk is hot, you shouldn't get any clumps. But if you run into this problem, you can pour the sauce in a sieve to strain out the clumps.
If your sauce is too thin, you can combine another tablespoon of butter with another tablespoon of flour in separate pan until bubbly and hot, then pour that into your sauce and whisk to combine.
CHEF'S TIP: When warming up the milk, add a couple quarters of onion to the milk, along with a pinch of ground cloves and a bay leaf. Let these ingredients infuse their flavor into the milk. Once the milk is hot and ready to be combined with the roux, strain the milk and discard the onion quarters and bay leaf. Combine the hot milk with the roux as described in the recipe.