There are some recipes for béchamel sauce that are complex as heck. They have you adding white wine, simmering the milk for 15 minutes with a bay leaf and pepper corn, or doing cartwheels while the butter melts (ok, just kidding). The truth, though, is that real béchamel sauce is super simple.
It’s also good to know how to do, because béchamel sauce is a base for all kinds of fun, white sauces (not to be confused with a sauce blanche, which perversely refers to a sauce that is made with water instead of milk).
In France (and also in Italy, I’ve heard on very good information) béchamel sauce is used in lasagnas. In fact, I first learned how to make a béchamel in my French cooking class in Paris when we were preparing to make a lasagna. It’s also used for gratins and anything that needs a think, creamy, milk-based sauce. So here’s how it’s made.
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup flour
2.5 cups milk
Heat up the milk, but don’t let it boil.
Make a roux with the butter and flour.
A roux is a mixture of flour and butter that is used as a base and thickening agent for almost all French sauces. Take the same amount, in weight, of flour and butter (if you’re measuring by volume, like we Americans like to, that will translate to about twice as much flour as butter).
Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat, and then mix in the flour with a wooden spoon or spatula, until the flour and butter is well incorporated. The mixture should form one or two large clumps.
Switch out your wooden spoon for a whisk, and add some – about 1 cup – of the milk, while whisking vigorously. Keep mixing until the milk, flour and butter are well integrated and there are no clumps.
As you continue to whisk, the mixture will thicken. Add more milk until you get the consistency you want. Because flour is so variable, it’s hard to say exactly how much milk you’ll need to use. The important thing is to add the milk slowly, because you don’t want the sauce to get too thin.
And that’s it.
You can add cheese to the sauce, at which point it becomes a mornay sauce.
My current favorite thing to do with béchamel sauce is to add cheese and mushrooms to make a creamy mushroom sauce. It’s fabulous with crepes.