Béchamel sauce is one of the great sauces, and it’s not used nearly as much as it could be. It’s essentially milk thickened with flour, but I always include onion, which adds flavor, sweetness, and umami. Brown the onion first for an even richer sauce. I also usually season it with nutmeg, which is traditional but not always necessary—it depends how you want to use the béchamel. It can be used for gravies, for gratins, for myriad sauces (add mushroom, add cheese). Add ground Breakfast Sausage for biscuits with sausage gravy. Béchamel is also the beginning of fabulous homemade mac and cheese: Take it off the heat, add grated cheddar, and stir till it’s melted, maybe add some white vermouth, toss with cooked macaroni, and bake. (Gosh, thinking of this now, I realize that same variation without the cheese would also make a beautiful sauce to nap lobster tails with.) If you’re using the béchamel for a savory dish, such as mac and cheese or lasagna, I recommend the savory seasonings, bay leaf, cayenne, and fish sauce. For something sweeter, use only the pepper and nutmeg. But it’s up to you—use that thing on the top of your neck.
As a rule, 1 tablespoon of flour will lightly thicken 1 cup of milk, but it will be fairly thin, like a stock-based sauce. For a thicker gravy, as for sausage and biscuits, add 1 ½ to 2 tablespoons per cup of milk.
Combine the butter and onion in a saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring to coat the onion with the melting butter. Add a four-finger pinch of salt. When the onion is translucent and tender, add the flour and cook for a minute or so.
Whisk in the milk (and add the bay leaf if you’re using it), then stir continuously with a flat-edged wooden spoon or spatula until the milk comes to a simmer, making sure no flour sticks to the bottom of the pan and scorches. Add the black pepper. Add the fish sauce, cayenne, and/or nutmeg (if using). Cook very gently for 15 minutes or so. Taste it—if you can taste raw flour, cook it a little longer, skimming any foam that gathers on one side of the pan.
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