The rules of béchamel - good advice for a perfect sauce every time!

a good cheese sauce
If the wisest film advice on classic blunders came from The Princess Bride, "Never get involved in a land war in Asia and never go up against a Sicilian when death is on the line . . . ha, ha, ha, haaaaaaaa (thud)," then the best food advice was from my friend Katy, who 20 odd years ago when we were impoverished students in Yorkshire cooking over an ancient Baby Belling, taught me how to make a white sauce with the words "and when it starts to look like honeycomb then you're ready to add the milk . . . " The best advice I have ever had in making a perfect white sauce, advice that has never failed me!

The perfect white sauce is actually the classic French béchamel sauce, (which sounds so much more sophisticated in French), which is the foundation for so many other sauces, from the homely cheese sauce to an elegant herb sauce.

While béchamel is not difficult to make, there are some classic blunders that can be avoided (not involving international aggression) so long as you stick to a few important rules.

The first rule of béchamel is to use equal parts of butter to flour to make the "roux" which is the cooked paste that is used to thicken the sauce. You cannot stint on the butter - there is no such thing as a low fat béchamel!

The second rule of béchamel is that the roux needs to be cooked for a few minutes, otherwise your sauce will taste of uncooked flour.

The third rule of béchamel is to be aware of the roux' phenomenal ability to bind liquid to the paste - it works out at roughly 250 millilitre of milk to about 25 grammes of roux. What you don't want to do is to have a large amount of roux and a small amount of milk. This way means that you end up with a thick gluey sauce. I always have more milk to hand just in case I need to let the sauce down.
The fourth rule of béchamel is low and slow - keep the heat low and slowly make your sauce; too high a heat then it is in danger of catching and burning and if you try to rush it the chances are it will be lumpy. When adding the milk, I add a very small amount of liquid and then stir frantically until it has all been absorbed, then I add about one third of the remaining milk and stir again until the paste has absorbed all the liquid. Add the next third and stir until absorbed and then the rest of the milk. If you add all of the milk at the same time, it is more likely you will get lumps.

The fifth rule of béchamel is constant stirring as this also prevents lumps forming as well as preventing the sauce from burning. Nothing is worse than a sauce with a scorched flavour!

The sixth rule of béchamel is long cooking if you want the perfect smooth sauce. Most recipes recommend a slow simmer (with constant stirring) for anything from 20 to 30 minutes. This will ensure a very smooth sauce. However, you can get away with slightly less cooking although the results can be less smooth. If you are using this sauce in a baked dish such as macaroni cheese or lasagne, then I don't think it matters too much!

  • Should you get lumps, then sieve the sauce into a clean pan and proceed as normal.
  • Cold or hot milk? Decisions, decisions. Warm milk will mean the sauce thickens more quickly. Cold milk means you are less likely to get lumps. It is your decision!
  • If the sauce catches and burns there is nothing you can do to save it! Seriously, throw on the compost and start again.
  • While you are simmering the sauce, use a whisk to stir rather than a wooden spoon because this can help to reduce lumps.
  • You can buy special "sauce" flour - Sainsbury's do one. I am not sure what makes it different (perhaps it has been pre-sifted), but it does seem to work!
  • Good things to add to a béchamel sauce are grated nutmeg, cayenne pepper, chopped herbs, mustard and of course cheese.
  • Another way of injecting flavour into your sauce, which can be a little bland, is to infuse the milk with extra flavour. Heat the milk with a chopped onion, squashed garlic, black peppercorns, bay leaves and even chopped carrots and celery.
béchamel sauce with cheese (a cheese sauce by any other name!)

30g butter
30g plain flour, sifted
300ml infused milk (onion, garlic, carrot, celery, peppercorns, bay leaves)
150g extra mature cheddar, grated
15g Parmesan or Pecorino cheese, grated
half tsp Dijon mustard
half tsp cayenne pepper
freshly grated nutmeg
salt and freshly ground black pepper

  1. If you are intending to infuse the milk then begin this first. It is as simple as chopping up an onion, a celery stick and a carrot, together with a smashed garlic clove (or two) and adding it too milk with about 10 black peppercorns and 2 bay leaves. Bring the milk to a slow simmer then remove from the heat and set aside. This allows the milk to be infused with these flavours.
  2. Meanwhile, over a low heat, gently melt the butter and stir in one teaspoon of the sifted flour and stir quickly until the flour is absorbed, before adding the next teaspoon and stirring. Add the remaining flour and continue to stir. The roux needs to cook for one or two minutes until lightly coloured (a golden straw colour). You will hear some TV chefs describe the texture you need to look a bit like wet sand. This is good advice, but what my friend Katy said all those years ago was that the roux is ready for the milk when it takes on a slightly granular appearance of honeycomb. It works for me every time! (Thank you, Ms Whickers!)
  3. Strain the infused milk.
  4. So when the roux is ready, add a splash of the strained milk and stir like crazy (off the heat if you prefer). When the roux has absorbed all of the liquid, add the next third of the milk and stir. When that is absorbed, add the next third and stir until absorbed and the sauce is smooth. Add the last of the milk and stir again until smooth.
  5. Simmer the sauce for anything up to 20 or 30 minutes, stirring constantly, for a smooth, silky sauce.
  6. About 10 minutes before the end of cooking, add the mustard, spices and cheese. Stir to ensure that all the cheese has melted. (Of course you will have been stirring anyway!)
  7. Check the seasoning and then you are ready to go.


o cozinheiro este algarve said...

Sound advice indeed....and thank you for bringing back memories of Student meals on the good old Baby Belling.

Karen S Booth said...

Oh the magic of those to two words, student and baby Belling.....been the too! And in Yorkshire, was at Leeds university! Great post and sound advice too........Karen

Marmaduke Scarlet said...

It's funny - as soon as you mention the Baby Belling you can immediately see the room, the furniture and the wallpaper! And in my case, cheese on toast!

BTW Karen, what with you living in the Far East too AND being at Leeds University (as was I!) ... um . . . do you think we might have been living parallel lives!