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When I make Béchamel sauce I keep getting different results.

Sometimes the sauce ends too liquidy and never seems to firm up. Other times it might get all lumpy, despite me using a recipe that has worked fine in the past.

Are there any general preparation rules or tips to ensure consistent results when making a Béchamel sauce?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 11 down vote accepted

Consistent results stem from consistent actions. Bechamel is one of the most basic sauces, so you should take the time to master it. The general proportions for this sauce are:

  • 1 Tbsp butter (clarified optional)
  • 1 Tbsp flour
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/8 tsp nutmeg

The things to make sure you do right:

  • Cook the roux - It should be a nice golden hue (not brown).
  • Scald the milk prior to adding - The milk should be heated to a near boil in a separate pot while you prepare the roux. Cold milk is one of the primary causes of bechamel fail.
  • Add the milk in 1 cup increments.
  • Whisk thoroughly until you see no lumps with each addition of milk.
  • Stir constantly until done.
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You'd definitely want to scald the milk first if it's coming out lumpy. I tend to be pretty careless with the rest of the preparation, but I do scald the milk first and I've never had one fail. –  Aaronut Aug 6 '10 at 2:18
    
+1 Nice and concise –  Willbill Aug 8 '10 at 14:31
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I never bother to scald the milk and have never had a problem. However, I add the milk in smaller increments that 1 cup at first, to thin out the roux slowly, and whisk constantly. You also need to make sure that you bring the heat up sufficiently after adding the milk in order for the thickening to happen. Once it starts to thicken, then you can turn it down, but it won't thicken if you just leave it on low heat the whole time. Note that the thicker you make your your roux (i.e. the higher the ratio of flour to butter), the thicker your final sauce will be. –  Allison Feb 3 '11 at 23:28
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I'm with Allison. I pretty much never scald my milk when making bechamel, and it comes out perfectly fine every time. Treat bechamel like any emulsion; start slowly, and then you can speed up as the mixture becomes looser. –  daniel Mar 4 '11 at 3:47
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I've always made the béchamel sauce with cold milk. The last time I made it I tried to scald the milk before. The result was a quite lumpy sauce. I don't recommend scalding the milk. –  Georg Schölly Mar 12 '11 at 9:13

A lot of how you make a béchamel is technique -- here's how I learned (from my italian great grandmother).

You'll need a wooden spatula for stirring, or a wooden spoon if you don't have the spatula.

  1. Melt some butter (exact amount depends on how much thickening power you're trying to get, I'd typically use 2-3 TB), and let it foam a little bit, but not brown.
  2. Sprinkle on as much flour as you had butter. (you can use more, but not more than about twice as much flour to butter)
  3. Stir in the flour, and it'll form a clay-like lump. Spread it across the bottom of the pan to cook.
  4. Let it cook for a minute or two, redistributing it a couple of times during the process. Exact cooking time depends on how hot the stove is; cook until it loses the kinda greasy look. (the longer you cook it, the less thickening power you'll have, and it'll start to take on a nutty flavor, which you actually do not want for this; you don't want it to pick up color; you should stop before it hits a straw color, which is enough to cook out the raw flour taste).
  5. Add a little milk (it can be cold, that really doesn't matter, but you only want to add a couple of TB.
  6. Stir thoroughly, and it'll start to look like paste.
  7. Add some more milk. Maybe a little more than the first addition.
  8. Stir thoroughly. it'll look like a thick batter, or maybe runny paste.
  9. Keep repeating the milk/stirring 'til you get the consistency you want. You never want to add more milk than what's in the pan so far (and it's better if you only add about 1/2 as much volume as what's in the pan; the slower you add the milk, the less stirring is required to mix it back in).
  10. Add a pinch of salt (but only if you use unsalted butter), and grate a little nutmeg over it, and stir it in.

You can hold it if you keep it just below a simmer. You'll need to stir it once in a while, to keep it from burning on the bottom. If it's getting too thick, just add a little more milk.

If you heat it too high, you'll actually loosen it back up. You want it at most a low simmer. It'll also thicken up some more as it cools, so you might want it a touch runnier than you want to serve it at.

If you're using this for an alfredo or mac & cheese, the pasta will absorb a lot of liquid, so you'll want it fairly loose.

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The starch in the flour needs to be heated to at least 150 F in order to expand and thicken the sauce, but once it hits 200 F, it will collapse again. –  Allison Feb 3 '11 at 23:34
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Additionally, the ideal proportion for a roux is 1:1 by weight butter:flour. Not by volume. –  daniel Mar 4 '11 at 3:47
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My technique precisely. I would add two things - at step 5 and 7 (when you add milk) just let the milk sit for a moment in the hot pan before you start stirring. In this way warmer milk is meeting starch which means less lumps (this is also the reason for the pre-scalding suggestions.) Also if it does lump, get out the whisk. –  Kate Gregory Mar 4 '11 at 14:19
    
@Kate : I've never really thought about it ... I guess it's in there to warm for a few seconds, as I recap the milk, but I've never thought about it. Of course, when dealing with slurries, you specifically use cold liquid so the starch doesn't over gelatanize on the outside, keeping liquid from penetrating to the middle, so I'm not sure if hot's necessarily an advantage. –  Joe Mar 4 '11 at 14:41

temperature. I would turn down the heat on the sauce, and take it a little bit slower, to avoid making the lumps in the transitions of the sauce.

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