Bechamel Sauce is one of the most basic, yet most versatile, friends you can have in your kitchen. It’s a dinner-starter you can pull together in less than 10 minutes, without a recipe, with only three ingredients; butter, milk, and flour. It can be seasoned simply with salt and pepper, or with herbs and spices, or even cheese. It’s one of the very first things I learned to cook. If you read cookbooks (what, don’t you?), you’ll find varying ratios of butter to flour to milk, but it really is as simple as 1 tablespoon butter to 1 tablespoon white flour to 1 cup milk. I have substituted half and half, and even heavy cream, for the milk, with lovely results. It is very forgiving if you accidentally let it get too thick or thin, as long as you give it your loving attention.
I grew up during the 60’s and 70’s, when home cooking was on a downward swing. My mom cooked what she learned to cook growing up; a few large family meals that fed a crowd cheaply. She was (still is, actually) best known for her baking skills, making pies and cakes from scratch that were always a hit. Ours was only a family of 5, so there were always leftovers, but reheating them was a thankless proposition in those pre-microwave days, and we would soon tire of them. Sadly, I remember throwing away a lot of food that just sat in the refrigerator until it was inedible.
She joined the workforce when I was in high school, so weekdays we ate primarily canned, boxed and frozen foods, with those giant from-scratch dinners on the weekend or on holidays. I learned to make a couple of easy weeknight meals; one of them was creamed tuna, on noodles or toast. It consists of a white sauce and canned tuna, cooked together and served over said noodles or toast. Around the same time, in Home Economics class (!) we were taught to make a white sauce. I already knew how, and was perplexed by the fact that my fellow students had never made it. No one ever referred to it by its fancy French name, Bechamel.
I was not an accomplished home cook when I left home in my 20’s. I could manage, relying on those boxed, canned, and frozen foods that were inexpensive and quick, as well as a lot of fast food. I never cooked my mom’s big dinners; it just didn’t make sense. Once I had my own small family to cook for, our particular dietary requirements, as well as my interest in local, seasonal foods, made me seek my own path in my kitchen. I had to leave my mother’s kitchen behind; all except the Bechamel.
This is the same 2 tablespoons of butter and flour, whisked together so they are smooth and well-combined. The more conscientious you are about whisking now, the less likely you will have lumps to worry about later. You want to cook this for a minute or two, to get rid of the raw flour flavor, but not much longer, or it will brown. That’s a different sauce.
1 cup of milk has been added. You will find Bechamel recipes that call for warm milk, and some that call for cold milk, but I’m here to tell you I have been using milk straight from the refrigerator in my “white sauce” my whole life. Just sayin’. This hasn’t been whisked in yet, so you can see the buttery grainy look it gets. Now’s the time for serious whisking.
The final result, after some simmering to thicken, and whisking to keep it smooth, is this rich, silky, sauce, a little thicker than heavy cream, commonly described as coating the back of a spoon. If it is watery, it won’t coat the other ingredients you add, so it needs to simmer longer. If it is pasty, you’ll have a hard time stirring everything together, so it needs thinning with a splash of milk, over low heat. It doesn’t have a lot of flavor right now, because it’s waiting for you to tell it what you want. Turn the heat to low, to slow down the cooking. You can add any cooked meat, cubed or shredded. You can add cooked vegetables. You can add grated cheese. You can add chopped fresh herbs. Once you’ve warmed everything together, give it a taste, and season with salt and pepper until you like it. Take it off the heat; it’s dinner time. Serve over noodles, potatoes, or on toast. If you have time, you can even add the noodles to the mix, pour it all in a baking dish, and bake until bubbly, and you have a casserole. Boom.
If you only learn how to make one sauce, Bechamel is the one to learn. This sauce can take you anywhere you want to go. It is fast, it is easy, and it is awesome.