As mentioned in my last blog, while I am not a fan of microwaves, there are a couple of good uses for the nasty beasts, and this is one of them: I will also give the conventional method for the stove top. Many people consider that the terms “white sauce” and “béchamel” are interchangeable, but there is a difference, and I will show you how to do both.
Multiply the quantities as you need, and allow slightly longer cooking times if necessary.
One pint of whole milk.
For a pouring consistency:
Three quarters of an ounce/20 grams plain white flour
Three quarters of an ounce/20 grams butter
For a coating consistency:
One and a half ounces/40 grams plain white flour
One and a half ounces/40 grams butter
Put butter and flour in a bowl, and microwave on full power for approximately one minute, depending on the wattage of your machine. Stir thoroughly, then microwave again for a further minute. Stir again, then add approximately one third of the milk.
Microwave on full power for one to two minutes. Whisk in the rest of the milk, and microwave on full power for ten minutes. Whisk thoroughly again, microwave for another ten minutes on medium power. Whisk again.
Stove top method:
Use a heavy bottomed non-stick pan, or a double boiler (where a smaller pan or bowl is suspended in another pan of simmering water).
Melt the butter and flour together on a very low heat, stirring all the while, and allow to cook out for a minute or two – the mixture will look quite dry and “grainy”. Add the milk, in five or six stages, whisking thoroughly each time, and continuing to whisk as the sauce cooks. Once all the milk is in, bring to boil, then immediately turn down and simmer on the lowest possible heat (use a heat diffusing mat if you have one) for a further ten to twenty minutes, whisking occasionally, and taking care that the sauce does not “catch” or burn at the bottom – unlikely in a double boiler (or microwave) but quite likely in a single pan. Slowly but surely, the mixture will thicken to the desired consistency.
Both methods: when you feel the sauce is ready, taste a little. There should be no flavour of raw flour: if there is, cook for a few minutes more until it disappears. It can take twenty minutes or longer for flour to be fully cooked out. Yes, really.
Season with salt and ground white pepper, taste again, and adjust the seasoning if necessary.
If your sauce is too thick, add a little milk and heat through for a few minutes. If your sauce is too thin, let it simmer until it reduces to the desired consistency. You could instead whisk in a bit of beurre manié (equal quantities of butter and flour mixed to a paste) to thicken it, but you will then need to cook out fully until the raw flour taste is gone.
The true béchamel is not much more complicated. In addition to the above quantities of flour, butter and milk, for either pouring or coating consistency, you will also need the following aromatics and flavourings.
4-6 black peppercorns
1-2 bay leaves
A slice or two of onion
Blade of mace, or a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
3-4 fresh parsley stalks
Add the aromatics to the milk: bring it to a simmer, and let the flavours infuse for around ten minutes on the lowest possible heat. Strain the milk, then use as in the above recipes. Adjust seasoning as necessary once the sauce is finished.
Uses: only limited by your imagination. Try the plain pouring sauce or béchamel over chicken or vegetables, or add finely chopped herbs, such as parsley, to use with salmon, other fish, or gammon. Or how about using it as the base for a simple chowder? Add grated cheese to your coating sauce: use for lasagne, macaroni cheese, cauliflower cheese etc, or for any recipe that calls for Mornay sauce.