Bechamel, White Sauce: A How To

Dear Home Ec 101,

On Sunday you mentioned you didn’t like adding Cream of Something Soup. A lot of my recipes call for Cream of Chicken or Mushroom. Am I just not supposed to make those recipes?

Signed,
Connie V. Nience

Heather says:
Not at all, there is a very easy substitute and unless you find a fantastic deal, this is one of those times where the solution can be cheaper than the original. Remember we are comparing like to like (homemade stock is not directly comparable to chicken granules).

What you need is a basic white sauce, called bechamel (besh-a-mel). I’m going to run through the basic procedure, then I’ll show alternatives for different situations. This recipe yields the amount you need when a recipe calls for a can of cream of something soup.

Bechamel

Ingredients:

  • 4 TBSP unsalted butter
  • 4 TBSP flour
  • 2 cups milk
  • pinch of salt (about 1/2 a tsp, doesn’t have to be exact)
  • pepper*

*If you are going to be using this in a fancy recipe, use white pepper, otherwise fresh ground is just fine.

In a saucepan melt the butter over low heat.

*Frequently recipes say use a heavy saucepan. This term doesn’t imply anything about the sauce, it’s a warning against trying to use a pan with a thin bottom. Without getting into too much detail, pans with thicker bottoms are more likely to heat evenly, reducing the chance of scorching.

flour-and-butterAdd the flour and whisk together. You can use a spoon, but a whisk is easier. Put your milk in a microwave safe cup or bowl and heat for 1 – 2 minutes. I use a pyrex type measuring cup.

whiskStir frequently for five minutes. If your pan is thin, this means stir constantly. Right now you are creating a roux, this will be the base of your sauce, this step is important as it prevents a floury taste.

If you’re like me and have a toddler that’s usually attached to your hip, you’ll need to put the kid down for the next step, it only takes two minutes, but you need two hands, three if you’re trying to take a picture of the process. (I don’t have three hands, I just felt like I needed it).

pouring-milkPour very slowly and whisk constantly. Don’t be scared when flour absorbs the milk and suddenly looks like dough. Just keep whisking and slowly pouring. You want to only add the milk as fast as the roux can absorb it. If you get ahead of the roux, stop pouring, but don’t stop stirring. The closer you get to the end of the liquid the faster the roux can absorb it. So, you start with just a trickle, then increase. Got it? Good.

basic-white-sauceAdd your pinch of salt and pepper and you’re done.

Now, that sounds manageable, right?

Cream of Chicken substitute 1/2 the milk with chicken stock.

Cream of Celery substitute 1/2 the milk with chicken or vegetable stock and add 1/2 cup of chopped and sauteed celery. OR saute the celery in the butter, reduce the heat, then whisk in the flour and milk.

Cream of Mushroom substitute 1/2 the milk with chicken or vegetable stock and add 1/2 cup of chopped and sauteed mushrooms. OR saute the mushrooms in the butter reduce the heat, then whisk in the flour and milk.

Gluten Free – use 4 TBSP of rice flour or try Pamela’s Baking Mix

Additionally, if you are using this sauce in another recipe, add a pinch of the herbs or seasonings you will be using to complement the final recipe.

Bechamel can be stored in the refrigerator for up to five days.

Now, the big question is why would I go to that trouble?

Here’s why:

soup-ingredients
Many thanks to Chris Gallagher for the image.

Do you have any questions or suggestions?

fearless-fridays1Today’s recipe was a key ingredient in my Fearless Fridays recipe for this week. What are you going to make?

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28 thoughts on “Bechamel, White Sauce: A How To”

  1. Rebecca –I use almond milk (if you’re not nut allergic) and whatever gluten free flour I have on hand. I think it’s pretty good made with almond milk. I make my own milk to avoid all the added junk. I go to the home improvement store and buy those cheap paint strainer bags for a nut milk bag. They have an elastic opening, and come in different sizes. I like the bigger ones. A nut milk bag costs about 10 bucks and these are two to a pack and the pack is like 3 dollars.

    Reply
  2. I make this often as a replacement for jarred Alfredo sauce. Only I add parm/reggiano cheese crushed garlic and pepper. I can even use whatever I have left of the green can of Kraft cheese when I’m out of the fresh stuff. In fact this is on my menu for the week to use over spinach and sausage stuffed pasta shells.

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  3. Sorry for the blank comment – I’ve never used this venue before. Anyway, I enjoyed this discussion very much. It may sound weird to you all, but I was raised eating Bechamel every morning for breakfast with biscuits and sausage, bacon or eggs, sliced tomatoes etc. Of course we called it thickn gravy, which I think was really ‘thickened’ gravy. Now that I am Celiac I really miss it, so I appreciate your posting! I just made a pan full for a pasticciata and it tasted the same as I remember, but it has been a long time, maybe I’ve forgotten! Now I just have to perfect gluten free biscuits!!!

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  4. I'm late on the commenting… but THANK YOU for this. I have abandoned recipes that call for "cream of ___ " soups because I didn't know how to substitute. Thanks for giving me my recipe box back!

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  5. Very nice! I never liked those soups much, but when I saw the amount of trans fats and other stuff in them, I swore off them. These adaptations are clever, though.

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  6. I do a white sauce a lot since I cannot eat mushrooms, and therefore my own sauce in recipes that call for cream of mushroom soup.

    Question: if a recipe calls for the condensed cheddar cheese soup, can I sub the white sauce with cheddar cheese in it and have similar results? I imagine so, just wanted a 2nd opinion.

    Thanks!

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  7. Thanks for the into to the sauce…I fall back on Cream of X soup too often and didn’t know what else to do, this sauce seems easy, and great to know I can make a big batch to use throughout the week.
    DH favorite is his version of Stroganoff – hamburger, cream of X, noodles – that’s it….finally got to throw in some sour cream and mushrooms and spice….I think I’ll try the sauce rather than cream of X of a change of pace and use a better cut of meat as well.

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  8. I measure the milk into microwaveable measuring cut, then briefly warm it. Not hot, just no longer cold. Makes it easier to blend, because if you add too much cold milk to the roux, the butter solidifies briefly.

    Princess Leia: you can make the roux in bulk, store it, covered, in the fridge, & scoop out tablespoon fulls to blend with your milk or stock/broth, or toss into soups to give them a bit of body. That’s what we professionals do.

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  9. I must be a similar kind of snob, because I shudder at the thought of adding condensed soup as an ingredient. I love white sauces, though, and they are so easy. Once you have the basics down of a few tricks, it is easy to cook from scratch.

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  10. Oh, I get it. Remember the Ramen I mentioned for “emergencies” well a bad case of PMS is an emergency in my book. And before those who are bigger nutrition nerds than me tell me that’s why I have a headache and get bloated, no. I have the headache that day regardless, I’ve been doing this for a while and I’ve learned that there is nothing I can do to prevent that headache.
    There is a world of difference between a treat and a daily habit.
    Cookies in and of themselves are not bad.
    Living on cookies is, even organic cookies. 😉

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  11. I have a confession. We have cream of X soup on the shelf. In fact we just bought a flat of it. I know, I know its bad. Its full of sodium and excess carbs and all that junk. But, my husband, who could eat pasta everyday of the week, loves it. The only ‘dish’ he knows how to cook involves pasta, browned hamburger, peas, and cream of mushroom soup. Apparently the sliminess (slimyness?) is a good thing. He rarely gets that meal. Rarely. I don’t want the kiddo thinking that’s normal eats in our house. Its just a ‘Daddy had a bad day and he eats his feelings’ meal. Only I might not say the part about eating his feelings cause then his feelings are made of tons of slimy carbs.

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  12. The more I read about rice flour, the more it sounds like it takes a long time to cook away the gritty texture. I do not have to cook gluten free, so I rely on those I know who do and I appreciate anyone who has been there’s input.

    Jackie, I think the only thing I remember cooking in girl scouts was apple pie and the horrid yet fascinating combination of American cheese, mini marshmallows, and saltines.

    The whisk came with the set of cookware my husband gave me for my birthday last year. I’ve used the cheap ones coated with silicon before and I hate them. I think you can get a whisk similar to mine at any snooty cookware store. Already it has been much more useful than the cheap ones that fell apart, so I think it would be a worthy investment.

    Leia, I answered your question on freezing in today’s post.

    Thanks!

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  13. Thanks so much for this. You can’t get cans of Cream of X soup here in Denmark and this has been a major hurdle for some of the quick-fix recipes I’ve run across from the US. Finally! (And additive-free!)

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  14. Two quick notes on non-wheat flours and making roux:

    1. I don’t care for rice flour for this purpose, as it tends to be gritty. I tend to use a combination of oat and tapioca flours for this sort of thing.

    2. I sift Pamela’s mixes before I use them. If you do this, you’ll quickly find out why I do it. Sifting really, really improves the texture, particularly critical for something like bechamel, where grittiness will be a problem.

    @Jackie Leeper – Please get rid of that Teflon pan. Teflon is really toxic. I switched to all cast iron and stainless steel, and haven’t regretted it for a moment. A properly-cured cast iron pan is naturally non-stick, and stainless steel cleans up easily with a copper scrubber and/or a Magic Eraser.

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  15. I must be reaallly old. I learned to make Bechamel as part of my cooking badge for Girls Scouts. Back then we called it white sauce. I never got the badge. I think this was a portent for my future cooking skills. Where did you get that snazzy red whisk? I bought a whisk in which the wires were covered with silicone. It quickly started peeling off, and I still need a whisk for my teflon sauce pan.

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  16. When you’re gluten free, like me, you can’t even USE the canned cream of “whatever” soups…so this was one of the 1st things I learned how to make! Pamela’s EVERYTHING is awesome…I haven’t found one thing that isn’t wonderful. But for the purposes of making gravy and cream of chicken, etc….I tend to use cornstarch and potato starch…the rice flours can be a bit grainy. Other than that, this is exactly how I make cream of chicken for broccoli casserole, chicken and rice casserole, etc.

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  17. Notice salt is in the top ten ingredients? Among the other yucky, non-food things?

    I, too use a skillet for making white sauces and rouxes. It makes blending easier.

    Bachemel is one of the essential sauces any cook should know how to make. It is a mother sauce for many, many other sauces, like cheese sauce for mac & cheese mentioned by imabug.

    Thanks for writing about it and offering a recipe. It’s one of the must knows for Home Ec 101 or anyone! ;o)

    Reply
  18. Bechamel is a very versatile sauce, and is occasionally referred to as the “mother sauce” because from it you can make a huge variety of sauces from it. So easy to make too.

    Throw in some Cheddar cheese, a little dry mustard and combine with macaroni to make a Mac and Cheese that blows away anything out of the box.

    i think there’s a good eats episode dedicated to sauces.

    oh, and make sure it’s unsalted butter you use for the roux (or just leave out the extra salt if salted butter is all you have).

    Reply
  19. If you don’t have a heavy saucepan, you can minimize the scorch factor by putting the saucepan/pot you do have inside a frying pan on the burner. That will add an extra layer of thickness to the bottom.

    Like the recommendation for a heavy saucepan, you might hear of using a cast iron frying pan for this. It’s because cast iron is EXCELLENT at retaining heat and keeping the temperature at a constant.

    Reply

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