I am not schooled in the art of French cooking. When it comes to food, I’m as Asian as Asian comes, and I was that way until I was an adult. Appreciation for Italian food came next and, after that, Mexican and Greek. There are certain South American, Spanish, Middle Eastern, British (and Scottish, Irish and Welsh), Scandinavian and Bavarian dishes that I like and can cook decently but ask me about those cuisines in a broader sense and I swear I won’t be able to utter nor write more than a couple of paragraphs.
I always thought that my knowledge of French cooking was even less. I have been making Béchamel sauce for as long as I can remember, I learned to make it even before I learned how to make tomato sauce from scratch, and I have been preparing derivatives of the basic Béchamel sauce. I didn’t realize until quite recently, however, that that’s the way it’s done in French cooking — that Béchamel sauce is a mother sauce and whole lot of other sauces, called secondary sauces, can be derived from it by adding one or more ingredients. If you add cheese to Béchamel sauce, for instance, it becomes Mornay sauce.
In short, I don’t know many fancy names. But I know techniques. I am good at making derivatives and I am good at deconstructing a dish (the only person I know who is better at deconstructing a dish is my daughter Sam — she can taste and identify spices and herbs in a dish even if they are no longer visually distinguishable from the rest of the ingredients). In short, I know how to but I am not always aware that there is a name or a label for whatever I’m doing. I’m only just beginning to attach labels to cooking techniques.
One of those terms that I recently learned is “mother sauce.” It seems that there are five mother sauces in French cuisine and Béchamel sauce is one of them. Tomato sauce is another and the rest are Espagnole, Velouté and Hollandaise.
Basic Béchamel sauce consists of equal amounts of fat (butter, normally) and flour plus enough milk to make a velvety mixture.
- 1/4 cup butter
- 1/4 cup flour
- 1 and 1/2 cups milk (more or less)
- white pepper
- ground nutmeg
Start by making a blonde roux (see how to make a roux) with the butter and flour. You have to click that link about making a roux because all the details are there.
Once you have a blonde roux, you add milk. Pour slowly in a thin stream, stirring the mixture as you pour. How much milk depends on how thick or thin you want your sauce which, in turn, depends on what you want to use it for. Off the heat, season the sauce with salt, white pepper and a tiny pinch of nutmeg.
Some cooks prefer to heat the milk before pouring it into the roux. I don’t. Other cooks add a myriad of ingredients to the sauce after the milk is added (eg., onion, peppercorns, bay leaf). I don’t see the point. I prefer the purity of the taste of the butter and milk, and how the slightly toasted flour imparts a nutty flavor. If I want something more complex, then I prefer to make a secondary sauce based on the basic Béchamel sauce.