About almost two months ago, I wrote about one of Five Mother sauces – Hollandaise sauce. And today, I reckon, it’s time to move on and start practicing simple Bechamel sauce.
Why is it simple? Because it’s the most basic of the big five. You don’t need to make any stocks (but if you’d like to, there’s an awesome recipe here), constantly check the temperature, or deal with vegetables. It’s simple; it’s just roux and milk.
Since the beginning of the culinary arts, people have striven to flavor the food, which is actually bland without seasonings, condiments, and SAUCES. And some foods can’t be eaten without them.
For instance, would you eat lasagna if there were no Bechamel? It would be so dry and unsatisfying…
Classic Bechamel sauce is very broadly used in culinary. It has a rich flavor, creamy and silky consistency, and is great if a dish requires gentleness and subtlety.
This sauce is also great to practice the first basic skills. It teaches you about roux and starch. You gain knowledge, so later, you can move one and create secondary sauces or even invent your own.
So, let’s take little steps, start from the beginning, question every detail, and learn as much as we can!
What are the goals when making a simple Bechamel sauce (or any other sauce)?
It doesn’t matter what kind of sauce you’re making, whether it’s a simple Bechamel sauce, Beurre blanc, Hollandaise, or Instant sauce (delicious recipe here), as Harold McGee in his book said, ‘The primary purpose of a sauce is to provide flavor in the form of a liquid with a pleasing consistency.’
Therefore, our goal is to harmonize flavors & perfect the texture.
The flavor is a combination of taste and aroma. Just recently, I realized that people didn’t know that. It means that we have to concentrate not only on what we add to the sauce to feel the taste but also on what we add to create a satisfying aroma.
The molecules we smell are not the same as the ones we taste. Aroma molecules are more soluble in fat than water. Therefore they escape from the water to the air.
Play with flavors and search for balance in every aspect.
And while flavor has more playfulness and freedom to create, texture and consistency rely more on science. I’ll quote the book ‘The silver spoon’: ‘the various ingredients react chemically with each other, and even the best cook cannot break the laws of nature.’
I’ll talk about the consistency and science behind it below, but, simply saying, we look for a consistency that is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon and not run-off and a texture that is silky, smooth, satisfying, and does not have any lumps.
What is the principle of the sauce?
For all sauces, the formula is the same:
SAUCE = LIQUID + THICKENING AGENT
When making White sauce, the formula looks like this:
BECHAMEL = MILK + ROUX
But let’s talk about sauces in general.
When making a sauce and creating a desirable consistency, we combine two phases: continuous and dispersed.
The continuous phase is like the liquid without a thickening agent; it is ‘the material in which all the other components swim.’ Most of the time, it’s either water (milk has about 87% of water) or fat.
The dispersed phase is those other components.
By combining those two phases, we make water less watery. The sauce thickens.
Now, let’s go deeper.
Most people think that thickening agents are binding while actually, they are obstructing.
When water molecules are interspersed by other solid particles (like oil, roux, bubbles), water molecules can move only a small distance before colliding with less mobile substances.
Consequently, the dispersed phase slowed the movement of the continuous phase and made it flow more reluctantly.
Also, if talking about Bechamel, fat globules in milk thicken the sauce when simmered down.
And now you know how sauces are done. Good job!
What is the roux (for Bechamel sauce, soups, and other sauces)?
As I talked about above, to make a sauce, we need a thickening agent, and in this case, it is flour.
Roux is a mixture of preheated starch in fat (ratio 1:1) to white, yellow, or brown endpoint. Those endpoints depend on what sauce you are making.
But I guess you have a question in your head: why do we need to make a roux instead of just mixing flour with milk?
The reason is very simple, very logical, and related to the perfection of texture a lot.
Fat coats the flour particles and prevents them from clumping together and making lumps in a sauce.
If we add flour directly to the liquid, we create partly gelated starch lumps with a sticky surface that seals dry granules inside and prevents dispersing.
An interesting fact about starch* Starch is more effective at thickening milk than water because it bonds with both milk proteins and fat globules.
So as you can see, roux is very helpful. It lets us create the desired consistency and the texture that is pleasurable in the mouth.
Besides that, the roux has two more advantages:
- We cook out raw cereal flavor, which feels grainy in the mouth, and develop a toasty flavor.
- Browning reactions (Maillard reaction) that produce toasty flavors create the depth to the sauce’s color. Depending on what main food sauce is complimenting, it becomes more appealing.
How to fix ‘Something’s missing’?
When creating the sauce, we aim to either make the contrast between the dish and the sauce or let the sauce enrich the background and compliment the meal. And it is always our goal to add lacking flavor, complete the plate with the missing piece.
Most of the time, even if we made the same exact sauce hundreds of times, when tasting, we feel that ‘SOMETHING’S MISSING.’
I’m not an expert on all sauces, but I can definitely help with this easy Bechamel sauce. We have to know the reasons why this happened and how to fix it. Reading books, I found three causes and solutions and then did the experiments to see if it works.
Note* It has to work with all kinds of sauces. These rules are general for all.
1. Thickening agents have little or no flavor. Therefore, they reduce the effectiveness of the flavor molecules in the sauce.
2. Fat decreases aromatic intensity because it holds on aroma molecules, which are more fat-soluble than water-soluble.
3. Deficiency of one or more tastes, no balance found.
Three scenarios can happen, and there is a solution for each of them.
In the first one, it might be that you need to add some salt. Salt enriches, intensifies the flavor, and, most of the time, it is a solution to all flavor problems.
But this scenario can happen basically only when you already have built the flavor, and you need that small pinch of sodium chloride to make it happen.
In the second scenario, the taste is pretty good, but the smell is not inviting. In this way, you need to add more aroma molecules. Use fresh herbs, play with peppers, look for some good stuff in your messy seasoning’s drawer.
But don’t add any powders to the sauce. DO NOT ADD POWDERS. It’s too late for them. If you add them when the sauce is already liquidy, the taste gonna be bitter. You had to fry them before.
In the third scenario, there is no flavor or no flavor balance. It mostly happens for beginners or those who lack knowledge about flavors or think that their sauce is done when they mix roux with milk.
In that case, you need to know that there are five primary flavors: salty, sour, sweet, bitter, and umami, and you have to create the balance. Add a bit of salt, lemon/lime juices, or even balsamic, honey.
Play and experiment with what you have and taste after each ingredient. You’ll start noticing that, for instance, sweet, salty, and sour balance each other, and at the same time, you are building and balancing the flavor.
Is simmering important when making simple Bechamel sauce?
Long-simmering is necessary, so there will be no granular structure left to the starch, and the skin of the milk and flour proteins can be removed. You don’t want any of that.
Simmer the sauce gently for 30-60 minutes, and don’t forget to stir cause you’ll burn the Bechamel that had to be so simple.
Foolproof Bechamel sauce recipe
- 1L milk
- 80g unsalted butter
- 80g all-purpose flour
- salt to taste
- freshly grated nutmeg (or other spice you like)
- In a pot where you’ll be making the sauce, melt the butter, wait till you smell a nutty aroma, and add the flour. Cook it just a little, so the roux stays white.
- Little by little, add the milk into the roux and continuously stir, so you make no lumps and your sauce has a perfect texture.
- Add salt and freshly grated nutmeg. Season to your taste and try the sauce after you add something. Simmer the sauce for about 30 minutes