What is a béchamel, anyway?
Considered one of the mother sauces in French cooking, a béchamel is a white roux made with butter, flour and milk. In traditional American cooking, we typically use the béchamel as a base for other sauces (for example, to make macaroni and cheese).
If you're now wondering what the difference between a béchamel and a roux is, it's simple. A roux is a mix of (essentially) equal amounts of flour and butter that create a paste for thickening sauces. A béchamel is a white sauce that results from cooking said roux in a dairy product.
Almost any traditional cream sauce starts with a béchamel, but many home cooks avoid these recipes believing they're difficult, opting instead for preservative-packed pre-fab versions at the market. Even if you've tried before with disastrous results, we'll teach you the right way to get the perfect béchamel base for every sauce.
How to make a perfect béchamel
There are a multitude of recipes for béchamels, but they all follow the same basic procedures, regardless of the specific ingredients. But after you've found your recipe, follow these simple steps.
Step 1: Make a roux
First, you'll need to make your roux. Heat the butter over medium-low until it's melted. Then, add your flour and whisk it until it's smooth (use a whisk, not a spoon). While some recipes may call for darker roux, for a béchamel sauce, you should avoid allowing the flour to burn.
The goal here is to cook the flour long enough to get rid of the floury flavor. Stir it constantly to prevent burning and turn down the heat if necessary. You'll know it's ready when you see little bubbles pop up from the bottom of the pan through the mixture (like on pancakes). It will be a creamy texture with no lumps and will be slightly off-white as a result of the butter.
Step 2: Add the dairy
Once you've got your roux combined into a nice, creamy paste, you'll add your dairy, which will usually be milk (though some recipes may ask for a bit of heavy cream). Do not allow the roux to cool.
The milk should be very cold. Add the dairy slowly, whisking in just a bit at a time until combined, then adding more once the sauce in the pan is smooth. During this step, whisking should also be constant, but also vigorous to ensure there are no lumps in your finished sauce. If you have to pause in stirring to grab extra ingredients, it's OK, but don't let it sit too long.
Step 3: Finishing the béchamel
Bring the sauce to a boil (stirring constantly to avoid lumps, burning or scorching. The béchamel is done when it's come to a boil and thickened as desired.
You'll notice we didn't ask you to add any salt and pepper. Seasoning is important at every step of the process, but how you season it depends on what you're making. With regard to pepper, especially, make sure you use white pepper if you want to avoid little black flecks in your white sauce.
Now you have the perfect base for a multitude of sauces, from Alfredos to Mornays. All you need now is a delicious recipe and a hungry family.