Week 5: Mother Sauces – Bechamel, “White Sauce”

The Mother Sauces

I’m sure most of us have made sauces and probably have for quite some time. Sauce making is a skill, just as much as any other form of cooking. A quality sauce can bring magic to a dish, making the most basic ingredients come to life in unforgettable deliciousness. A sauce can also ruin a dish, if the dynamics, process and proportion of ingredients is wrong. To be honest, I never knew what it takes to make a great sauce until I really made an effort to cook better.

I love studying the art and science behind good food. I haven’t been able to attend a school yet, and may not because I don’t intend to make a career out of cooking. But I sure do love creating good food for my family and helping others do the same. Sauce making has been a skill I have slowly been improving and getting more adventuresome with. It’s been a very interesting concept to me, to learn that something that seems so basic on the outside can become so complex as you get into it. I was completely shocked to learn that you could use vegetables to flavor a sauce! Really? I was so used to making basic white sauces by simply making a roux and adding milk.  I never stopped to think about adding aromatics and seasonings to enhance the flavor. There are so many things you can do to add layers of flavor to your sauce – including using vegetables! A sauce is what you make it – make it a good one.

The French have designated five sauces as the “mother sauces.” Each has many variations, but the base is similar.  This week we will cover the white sauce, also called a bechamel.

Use a heavy bottomed pan to prevent scorching.

Bechamel

This week, prepare a white sauce and let me know how it goes! If you haven’t done much experimentation with sauces, try making some of the small sauces, listed at the end and get a feel for it.

This sauce is very easy to prepare, but take your time. The secret to a good sauce is to cook it slowly. This white sauce is rich, creamy and silky smooth thanks to the roux you start with. You may use any sort of aromatics that you would like. Light colored aromatics are preferred so they don’t leach color into the sauce. Garlic and onions are most common. When cooking them in butter, avoid cooking them so long that they begin to brown as that can discolor the sauce. You can strain aromatics from the sauce if you would prefer a silky smooth texture and more subtle flavor.

Recipe:

  • 6tb butter

  • ½ onion, finely chopped

  • Additional aromatics, if desired

  • 6tb flour

  • 4c milk, preferably warm (read how to temper milk below)

  • Salt and pepper

Method:

  1. Melt butter and cook onion over a low heat until onion is transparent. Stir in flour and while stirring constantly, cook for a few minutes. Do not allow the sauce to take on cover. This is called a roux. You want to cook the flour long enough for it to loose the raw starch flavor.

  2. Add warm milk (or temper in the milk), and stir constantly until mixture is thick and smooth.

Tempering the milk – Cold milk can cause the roux to seize and become lumpy, so it’s important to temper the milk, or bring the temperature of the milk up to that of the roux. You can do this two ways. The first is a two pot method. Heat milk in a separate pot to the same temperature as the pan making the roux. You may choose to add aromatics to the milk (bring milk to a simmer, add aromatics, cover, turn off the heat and let steep for 15 minutes) and strain them out before adding the milk to the sauce. Add the hot milk to the roux a little at a time, stirring constantly. Let the sauce come to a simmer before each addition. Once the milk has been completely added, bring the sauce to a simmer and lower heat. Simmer gently for about 10-15 minutes. When it’s done, it should coat the back of a spoon when a spoon is dipped in the mixture and pulled back out.

The second way to temper milk is a one pot method. You can add cold milk to the hot roux in very small amounts, but let it heat before strirring. As soon as steam escapes from the milk, stir to combine. Once smooth, add more milk, avoid stirring and let it steam before incorporating. Keep doing this for another couple stages until all of the milk has been added. Then, gently simmer the sauce 10-15 minutes. When it is done, it should coat the back of a spoon when dipped into the sauce and pulled back out.

To finish: Season with salt and pepper. White pepper is commonly used in this sauce due to its color, avoiding the black specks from black powder. You can strain the sauce if you wish for a silky smooth texture.

To Store: All starch based sauces will develop a skin when cooled. To avoid this, place plastic wrap right over the surface of the sauce. The sauce will thicken once cooled. To reheat, add a small amount of water or stock to the pot to prevent scorching, then gently bring to a simmer.

The thickness of the bechamel is dependent by the ratio of milk to roux. The more roux used the thicker the sauce will be. The less roux, or more milk, the thinner it will be. A thicker bechamel acts like a binding sauce. Great for binding layers of lasagna, topping a dish like cannelloni. A very thick bechamel can be used as the base for a souffle. To vary flavor of bechamel you can use various aromatics to infuse milk or roux.

You can replace milk with cream to make a basic cream sauce. Once bechamel is cooked, other ingredients can be added like cheese. It can be further thickened last minute with egg yolks and heavy cream also known as a liason. For a shiny finish, cold butter can be added at the very end.

There are many variations of a basic bechamel. The various spin offs are called “small sauces.” These basic but classic small sauces can further be specialized to compliment the dish it is being served with through aromatics and seasonings.

  • Cream Sauce: Bring 2c bechamel to a simmer. In a separate pot, heat 1/2c heavy cream to a simmer and cook until reduced one quarter, about 10 minutes. . Combine heavy cream with the bechamel, season with salt and pepper if needed, and serve.

  • Mornay Sauce: A classic cheese sauce best served with eggs, pasta, fish or vegetables. Traditionally made with Parmesan and Gruyere (or swiss). Bring 2c bechamel to a simmer, then add 2 ounces each of parmesan and gruyere cheese. Stir and simmer until melted, then remove from heat. Add 1tb butter and ¼ c hot milk. Stir and serve.

  • Soubise Sauce: A bechamel with more onion.  This is great for vegetables, eggs and chicken.  Sweat 2 sweet yellow onions and 1 clove garlic in 3tb butter.  In a separate pot bring 1c bechamel to a simmer.  Add onion mixture to it and simmer about 15 minutes.  Put the mixture through a blender to puree the onions to your desired consistency, then reheat to a simmer and serve.

  • Nantua Sauce: Classic seafood sauce. To a simmering 2c of bechamel, add 3 ounces shrimp butter and stir in ¼ c heavy cream.

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