The bedrock of classical French cuisine are the Mother Sauces or Grand Sauces. These five sauces are the foundation of thousands of other sauces. While not complicated or difficult, it takes practice to master these sauces. Having mastered them, you will have a foundation on which to build other great recipes.
The five sauces are:
Bechamel – a white sauce made from milk and a white roux.
Veloute – a sauce made from a light colored stock and a blonde roux.
Espagnole – a sauce made from a brown stock and brown roux.
Tomato Sauce – a sauce made with tomatoes, tomato paste, tomato paste and/or pureed tomatoes
Hollandaise – an egg and butter based sauce.
Now comes my dilemma. I am a vegetarian and have many friends who are vegan. The mother sauces (except tomato) are based upon stocks and dairy products which do not fit with the way I would like to cook.
My favorite Mother Sauce – Bechamel. Bechamel is rich, creamy and fat laden. It is incredibly versatile stuff. I use it when making mac and cheese, pot pies, and all kinds of sauces for vegetables. In looking at the various components, I want to find a way to adapt the sauce for those who do not eat dairy or who may have other dietary restrictions.
A Basic Bechamel Recipe:
First, my most basic Bechamel…
It makes about 1 cup of sauce. It multiplies well. My basic tools for making bechamel are a whisk and a saucepan. For the record, this is the simplest version of bechamel I have, but there are other traditional recipes out there which incorporate more vegetal matter. I like those for savory applications, but this one can also go towards dessert which is why I include it.
In a saucepan melt:
2 tablespoons butter
When it has melted, sprinkle in 2 tablespoons of flour.
Mix with a whisk until the flour is fully incorporated. Cook stirring over medium-low heat two or three minutes. You are not looking for color. You are just trying to take the raw taste out of the flour.
Slowly pour in 1 cup of milk. Whisk constantly. Some people recommend starting with heated milk. I find that as long as I add the milk slowly, it’s fine to use room temperature milk. I don’t use cold milk as it is likely to cause lumps. A friend suggests adding in 1 or 2 Tablespoons of milk at a time and making sure it’s fully incorporated before adding more milk. I prefer a slow drizzle.
When all the milk is incorporated, continue whisking and continue cooking. until the sauce is just below the boiling point. At this stage, it will begin to thicken. Season with sale, white pepper and nutmeg.
Roux is made of equal parts of fat and flour. It is used as a thickening agent for sauces. The fat and flour of a roux are blended together over heat. While any kind of fat can be used, traditionally butter or margarine are the basis. The choice of fat will have an effect on the flavor the roux imparts. If you end up making more roux than you need, you can save the leftover in the fridge for a few days, or for a few months in the freezer.
If I am cooking for non-vegans, I go with butter as my fat of choice most of the time. I like the flavor. When cooking for vegans, if I use margarine I use a brand called Nucoa which is a Kosher margarine that is pareve (neutral) and contains no dairy products. If that is not available, there are “vegan” margarines available at health food stores. I will also use a combination of canola oil and olive oil. I use a combination because I like the olive oil flavor but it has too low a smoke point.
In Louisiana, there are many more distinctions about the colors of roux, but for most cooks, there are three colors or stages of roux. They are white, blonde and brown. The difference is in how long they are cooked and how much color they take on. The darker the roux, the less its thickening power.
White roux, which is what I use in making Bechamel, is cooked just enough to bring together the fat and flour, and to get rid of the raw taste of the flour. Blonde roux is cooked until it takes on a uniform blonde color and smells of toasted nuts. This usually takes 10-20 minutes depending on the size of the batch with which you’re working. Brown roux can take 15 to 30 minutes and should have a very rich and nutty smell as well as a dark brown color. Black roux is just burnt. There is no turning back. It’s best if your roux goes from brown to black to just begin again. Once you burn roux, the bitter taste will never go away.
While a roux of wheat flour and butter are traditional in bechamel, not everyone can or should eat wheat. I have a friend who uses rice flour instead of wheat flour. It changes the flavor profile, but when using a white or blonde roux seems to work alright. If you want to eliminate fat, you can thicken using corn starch or potato starch, but be advised that you lose both a flavor element and your final result will have a glossier, less creamy finish.
Of course, the natural method of thickening would be to reduce by slowly simmering and letting the liquid reduce. I have used this technique, but it takes a long time and milk burns easily. I’ve found I can prevent some of the burning by microwaving or baking in an oven rather than cooking over a direct heat source. I still have to stir often.
Some folks who are merely looking to get rid of the flour will cook 1/4-1/2 cup of raw cashews in the milk for 15 or 20 minutes, and then will run the whole thing through a blender.
Egg yolks can also be used as a thickener, but the bechamel will need to be used in fairly short order for that purpose. In this case, I would use one or two egg yolks and beat them until they start to turn lemony colored. Slowly add in about a 1/4 cup of the hot milk, beating to keep things from scrambling or curdling. Once the egg yolks are tempered, add them back into the milk mixture. If I am using egg yolks as a thickener, I will add all the ingredients of my final sauce before thickening. If I’m doing a cheese sauce, I will melt the cheese into the milk before adding the egg yolks.
While I like the traditional roux best, there are alternatives that should accommodate most dietary concerns.
Milk is the liquid used in making Bechamel sauce. Changing the liquid to a stock or broth will result in a different one of the mother sauces. Though no one actually knows who invented this sauce, it is Louis de Bechamel who was the steward of Louis XIV. It is sometimes referred to as “white sauce” or “cream sauce.” Generally speaking per 1 cup of milk I would use 1 tablespoon of roux for a thin sauce, 2 tablespoons for a medium sauce and 3 tablespoons for a thick sauce
Traditionally, whole cow’s milk is used in making Bechamel. If you have no issue with using dairy, I do recommend sticking with whole milk. It adds to the texture and flavor of the final product. While I might use reduced fat, I would not use skim milk in this application. I have also had success in using goats milk. When I know the final application is going to be over mushrooms, I will sometimes replace a portion of the milk with mushroom stock. Likewise, over vegetable, I’ll replace some with vegetable stock. I never replace more than half the milk with stock.
If you do not want to use dairy, most vegetarian recipes call for soy milk. I find that most soy milks when heated have a distinct bean taste. I prefer hemp milk or almond milk or rice milk. I have even used coconut milk when my final goal was a dessert application. Whatever plant milk you use, make sure you use the plain and unsweetened varieties.
While salt, white pepper and nutmeg are traditional seasonings for bechamel, you may make substitutions.
I do not eat much salt, but this is one application I think feels flat without it. You can certainly experiment. While salt is not a major flavoring component here, it turns up the other flavors. On the other hand, there are flavored salts that can impart a subtle difference. I have made bechamel using a smoked salt and found it did add a little more depth. I could achieve the same with herbs added later.
White pepper is my preference here because it doesn’t have a lot of little black flakes in my beautiful white sauce. This becomes less of an issue when I’m using the sauce to make another sauce or where the sauce will be topped by other foods (such as in lasagna) and people won’t see it.
Nutmeg is always best freshly grated, but if all you have is canned, use that. I’m amazed how many friends of mine don’t like spinach or beans or asparagus until they were served them with a little nutmeg.
So What Do I Do With this Stuff?
The basic and traditional bechamel has lots of uses. If you have made a variation, you may find it works better in some applications than others. You will have to experiment. Still, if you have a basic bechamel, you can
1) Mornay is also a good base for mac and cheese. Figure on about 1/4 pound of pasta per person. Cook it and strain it, then blend it with cheese sauce. I like mine a little spicy, so will use red pepper flakes in the sauce. You can serve it as is, or place in a casserole or individual ramekins and top with bread crumbs and bake for 10 minutes at 325 or until it has a nice golden crust. I will sometimes make the mac and cheese with a layer of chopped, cooked broccoli, zucchini or spinach underneath so it becomes a layered casserole.
Stir as is into cooked spinach. How much you use will vary according to your taste. I tend to like just a little bit of sauce to my spinach. I can serve like that, or press it down into a casserole and top with buttered, seasoned bread crumbs. I’ll stick it under a broiler to brown it up. I can also use that same spinach mixture and top with the Durkees or French’s fried onions and use this as a replacement for the green bean casserole many eat at Thanksgiving.
2) Add in 1/2 to 1 cup of grated cheese to make a “Mornay” sauce. Gruyere, Swiss and Cheddar are all traditional. Keep in mind that the addition of cheese will thicken the sauce somewhat, so you may want to make a thinner sauce to start out with. Mornay is good over vegetables. I will use a cheddar based mornay and drizzle it over apple pie.
3) Adding vanilla and sugar to a bechamel can make a great sauce for fruit salad. I will also use bechamel in desserts by adding in pumpkin pie spices and canned pumpkin to make a pumpkin cream, or by adding lemon zest and juice and using alongside a lemon pound cake.
Bechamel is my favorite of the mother sauces. In my mind, it is the most versatile. It can go from appetizer to dessert. It can be flavored to match any dish. It makes up well in both small and large batches. It plays well with vegetables, fish, meat, fruits, and pastries. This is one of the most versatile items you can have in your culinary toolbox.