How to Make a Classic Béchamel Sauce
I received this email from Danielle asking how to thicken her soups to duplicate a “can soup” texture. Here is what she said:
I have recently been into making home made soups, the cooler weather I’m sure being a factor. I’ve been experimenting with trying to thicken my soup. I get it creamy by using a thickening agent like cornstarch, but I really enjoy a thick and heavy cream of mushroom or spinach soup. Is there some way I can achieve that “can” soup texture, without the can? Thanks for your help. Danielle
I sent this question to Chef Ricco as part of my Ask A Chef feature and here’s what he told me:
She wants to know if she can get the same texture as in a can of cream of mushroom soup. This is easy. A basic béchamel sauce will work.
But if she doesn’t want all that dairy, she can puree boiled potatoes and add it to the soup. Believe it or not, cooked cauliflower can be pureed and used also.
One of the grand or mother sauces of French cuisine. Absolutely unctuous, it tastes even richer than its ingredients would suggest. The finished product will be more reminiscent of cream than milk.
It is a a little time consuming but so worth the effort. Pronounced (bay-shah-mel), this classic is one of France’s five “Mother Sauces” but no one knows for sure when it was first created or by whom.
Most likely it was first prepared by someone who worked for King Louis XIV’s (1643-1715) of France.
Some say it either the Marquis Louis de Bechamel, the kings chief steward or Francois Pierre de la Varenne, the king’s chef who dedicated the sauce to Louis de Bechamel. Either way we know it starts with a roux made from butter and flour with the addition of boiled milk added to it.
What to Serve Bechamel Sauce With
By itself, it can be served with white meats like chicken or veal or vegetables and egg dishes. It is also the base for several other sauces including Mornay sauce which is Béchamel with cheese added to it.
Some other good ideas for using Bechamel sauce include any cream of soup recipe, eggs Florentine, turkey Tetrazzini or chicken Cordon Bleu. Casseroles, pot pies, open faced sandwiches or how about scalloped potatoes.
Chicken fried steak, chicken ala king, chicken & dumplings. Creamed pearl onions, creamed peas, creamed spinach. Creamed Anything!
There are multiple issues to consider with bechamel:
- Onions and cloves are optional. Some chefs prefer a very straightforward sauce of roux, milk, salt, pepper and nutmeg.
- Vegetable oil is sometimes substituted for the butter to produce an ever whiter colored sauce. Butter of course, offers more flavor.
- The thickness of béchamel can be altered by adjusting the amount of roux. This recipe will produce a béchamel of medium viscosity. For a light béchamel use less roux per quart of milk and for a heavier sauce use more.
- Many chefs scald the milk and add it to cold or room temperature roux as opposed to adding cold milk to hot roux. What’s most vital is that the roux and milk be at different temperatures.
- It is crucial to use your highest quality, heaviest bottomed pan and watch the heat. Béchamel can burn easily and thin pans are notorious for scorching food.
- 2 tablespoons butter sweet, unsalted
- 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1 cup milk
- salt & pepper to taste
- nutmeg freshly grated or ground, to taste
- 1 bay leaf
- 4 drops Tabasco sauce
- whole peppercorns
- shallots chopped
- 1 stalk celery
- Melt the butter in a medium sized saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour, stir until smooth and cook for five minutes but be careful not to let the flour brown. You want the flour to end up a light, golden color.
- Meanwhile, in a separate pan, add the milk and bring it to a boil. As soon as the milk comes to a boil, remove it from the heat and pour it into the butter flour mixture and start whisking.This mixture will soon come to a boil and start bubbling. That's ok, just be sure to keep whisking so the sauce doesn't burn and the sauce stays smooth.The bubbling will stop but the sauce will continue to boil.
- Keep cooking and whisking the sauce for 8 to 10 minutes until it thickens to the desired consistency. You may want to turn down the heat if it feels like it is cooking too fast.
- At this point, remove the saucepan from the heat and season with the salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste. You should end up with a creamy, smooth sauce. It is now ready for your soup.
- Be sure to give it a good whisk before using.