Béchamel or white sauce is a classic french ‘mother’ sauce made with butter, flour and milk. Its richness makes it ideal for serving with fish or to use in lasagne or macaroni cheese. You can add cheese and herbs to the basic recipe and it can be made with fish or chicken stock instead of milk.
600 ml milk
Salt and freshly ground black or white pepper
1. Melt the butter in a non-stick saucepan over a low heat. Add the flour and stir slowly, cooking it over a low heat, for 3-4 minutes or until the flour is cooked. (If you skip this step and don’t cook it long enough, your sauce will taste raw.)
2. Remove the saucepan from the heat and add a little milk to the butter/flour mixture (called a roux). Return the pan to the heat and cook the mixture, stirring continuously, adding a little milk at a time, and when it is absorbed adding more. Keep stirring, beating any lumps out as you go before you add more milk. Season with salt and black or white pepper and continue cooking it for 4-5 minutes over a gentle heat to thicken it.
TIP: For a richer sauce, add a little of the hot sauce to a raw egg yolk in a cup, mix well, then reintroduce into the main sauce. Cook for another minute or two.
Quick Béchamel sauce
You can make a Béchamel without making the roux first. Add the flour and butter to the saucepan, stir until the butter melts, add all the milk in one go and whisk the sauce vigorously over medium heat until you have whisked out all the lumps and the sauce has thickened. Add a bay leaf, season the sauce with salt and pepper and cook the sauce over a gentle heat for 10 minutes or until the sauce is thickened and no longer tastes of flour. This method takes a bit more energy and you have to be patient and whisk out all the lumps, but it is quicker to make and cuts out the possibility that you could burn the flour/butter mixture (the roux).
Tips for making Béchamel or White Sauce
– Use white pepper if you don’t want specks of black pepper to appear in the sauce (some chefs say this spoils the look of the white sauce).
– Add a bay leaf and/or half an onion when heating the milk and leave to infuse before adding it to the sauce to give it more flavour.
– Add a grating of nutmeg to the sauce at the end of cooking.
– Add cheese at the end of cooking the sauce and allow it to melt.
BECHAMEL/WHITE SAUCE RATIO TIP: The ratio for a white sauce is to use equal parts flour to butter in a 1:1 ratio, and add just enough milk, little by little, over medium heat until you have the thickness of sauce you require.
To make Cheese Sauce:
Add any grated hard or semi-hard cheese to the sauce when it is finished cooking: Parmesan, Pecorino, Gorgonzola, Cashel Blue, cheddar, any cheese that melts well will work. Don’t reheat the sauce once you have added the cheese as it will seize (though it is fine to use it in a dish that you are going to bake in the oven). It’s a good way of using up leftover cheese.
To make a quick macaroni cheese: Oil a baking dish or muffin tin; add cooked macaroni to Cheese Sauce (see note above); add cooked pancetta; stir gently and pour into the oiled baking dish or into muffin holes. Top with grated cheese which you have mixed with breadcrumbs and chopped fresh thyme. Dot with butter. Bake in a preheated oven at 200C/400F/gas mark 6 for 30 minutes or until bubbling and golden.
Béchamel Recipe Notes
If the sauce is too thick, add a little more milk and heat the sauce to thin it out.
If you want to hold the sauce until later, press a piece of cling film on top to stop it forming a skin.
If the sauce is lumpy, pop it into a blender and whizz it.
How to turn Béchamel sauce into other sauces:
Caper sauce: add chopped capers (it’s good with fish)
Cream sauce: add fresh cream (makes an extra rich sauce for lasagne)
Green herb sauce: add chopped fresh herbs (good with any roast meat)
Parsley sauce: add fresh chopped parsley (to go with boiled bacon for a traditional Irish meal)
Mushroom sauce: add finely chopped mushrooms which you have fried first in butter and/or olive oil (great on top of a burger)
Onion sauce: simmer onion slices until soft in boiling water. Drain, add a knob of butter, then add to the white sauce. Whizz in a blender until smooth.
Prawn sauce: add a quarter cup of cooked prawns to 250ml of Béchamel sauce, add freshly chopped parsley and serve with any plain white grilled fish.