Zut alors! You must make the béchamel
You really can’t cook well, or even passably, without knowing how to make a roux (pronounced ROO) and the resulting sauces. For our friends in France (those clever cuisiniers who fill their éclairs with chocolate cream – genius!) there are several basic (or mother) sauces that form the foundation of French cooking, and for my money, there’s no better food on the planet. They are white sauce (aka béchamel), velouté, espagnole, hollandaise, mayonnaise and vinaigrette.
Now we’ve discussed vinaigrette, which is probably the most commonly used sauce day to day. At least that was what I thought before my recent trek through the heartland, which is why I think we all need to take a look at white sauce. If you all are consuming condensed soups at the rate it appears you are, we need to revisit this, the simplest of sauces. It is so much better than anything from a can and so easy to make. Look!
BASIC WHITE SAUCE
The foundation of casseroles, gravies, stews, creamed vegetable soups and good old mac and cheese. You can replace the can of condensed soup in casserole recipes with a cup of white sauce. Sauté a couple ribs of minced celery and a little minced onion with the butter for cream of celery. For cream of mushroom, add a tablespoon or so of sherry with the milk and once the sauce is thickened, add sautéed fresh mushrooms. For cream of chicken add ½ cup of stock and ½ cup of milk (full fat is really best here). So much nicer than the cans. Really.
2 T unsalted butter
2 T flour
1 C milk, cream or a combination of the two (the fat content is up to you, though skim milk really doesn’t produce anything nice)
dash of salt (optional)
dash of pepper (white or black, also optional)
- In a sturdy saucepan melt the butter over low heat.
- Stir in the flour with a wire whisk or good silicone spatula.
- Cook the mixture, stirring constantly, over low heat for three minutes. Do not allow the mixture to brown unless you want brown butter sauce. This mixture is called a roux.
- Gradually stir in the milk, continuing to whisk, and cook the sauce over low heat for about four more minutes (maybe more, maybe less) until the sauce begins to thicken.
- Cook another five to ten minutes, stirring occasionally, over very low heat.
Thick white sauce: Increase butter and flour to 3 tablespoons each.
Thin white sauce: Decrease butter and flour to 1 tablespoon each.
Kitchen sink: In truth you can add almost anything to a basic white sauce. You can sauté minced onions and/or garlic with the butter, add a teaspoon (or two) of dry mustard or horseradish to the thickened sauce or even add curry spice to the butter. Some people add sour cream to thickened white sauce, but this strikes me as a bit de trop and I’ve never tried it.
Brown butter sauce: Let the roux cook until it browns, then add milk, stock or a combination of the two. Brown butter sauce has a nuttier, more assertive flavor than regular white sauce.
Velouté: Replace the milk with the same amount of stock. Often used in gravies and stews.
Béchamel: Heat milk with 1 small onion studded with three whole cloves, a bay leaf, and a pinch of nutmeg. Once it’s scalded, cover it and let it sit for 10-20 minutes to infuse, then remove the onion and bay leaf before adding the milk to the roux. (There are many recipes for béchamel. This is just the one I like best because it doesn’t involve bouquet garnis or other fiddly, pain in the ass techniques.)
Mornay: Add ½ cup of grated Swiss or Gruyere cheese (for a stronger flavor) to the thickened sauce. If you add cheddar, or a mix of cheddar and Gruyere, to the sauce you have the makings of a very fine mac and cheese à l’américain.