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How far in advance can I make a bechamel sauce before using it without having to cool, refrigerate and reheat.

For instance if I'm making a creamed spinach dish for a dinner party can I make the sauce right before my guests arrive, leave it on very low heat or in a warm oven unattended while I visit with everyone before dinner, and then assemble the final dish an hour later? How long could I push the timing? Also should I leave the sauce in a heated environment, or just on the counter and then rewarm it? Will there be a noticeable drop in quality?

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If you're thinking of letting it cool and pushing the timing, you have food safety concerns: cooking.stackexchange.com/questions/17528/… –  Jefromi Jul 19 '12 at 16:50
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3 Answers

up vote 2 down vote accepted

You could make it beforehand, store it in the fridge, and warm it up in the microwave when you want it. You'll only get problems if you add cream - then it may split.

It really is not worth the risks of having it sitting around. The alternative is to have your roux prepared, and work the sauce up quickly.

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If you do this, cover it with plastic wrap placed directly on the surface of the sauce to prevent a skin forming. –  ElendilTheTall Jul 19 '12 at 18:03
    
It depends on how quickly you can heat a portion the size you are making (big portion, resistive electric stove and thick SS or iron pan all make it slow), but I would prefer the roux from the fridge + sauce at serving time option. This supposes that you have a very low failure ratio with bechamel, of course, so not for absolute novices. –  rumtscho Jul 19 '12 at 19:27
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I would recommend making too much sauce and allowing the dish to sit in the oven, in a heavy casserole dish covered with aluminum foil, at 150'F; this will allow you to bypass danger zone concerns for as long as the dish remains edible.

At 150'F it should last quite awhile and the sauce should only reduce minimially depending on how long it is in there. My guess would be that you could stow it away for 2 hours without a noticeable difference.

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In my family, as a bechamel-based lasagne is always on our Christmas Eve menu, we just make a batch up that afternoon for anyone who wants to pour some extra over their lasagne, and keep it warm on the stove for about 2 hours while we deal with hors d' oeuvres and everyone showing up. (the lasagne itself was assembled the day before).

We've never had a problem -- there's generally someone going through the kitchen every 10-15 min or so, to give it a stir, so it's not a big deal. (the lasagne is the first course ...if you were trying to hold this for a second course, I guess it could be more or a problem, as you'd all be in the dining room)

I don't recall ever having problems with a skin forming with it kept on the stove, but we generally thin it back to the right consistency right before serving (cold milk is fine, no need to keep another burner going), as you don't know exactly how long it's going to be on the heat.

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