Perfect roux and bechamel

I have two articles on the back burner at the moment, and both of them use roux. Roux is a basic that every cook should know about, but for various reasons it's rather shrouded in myth.

Roux is basically a mixture of flour and oil, which are brought together to become a thickening agent for liquids. It is used for anything from gravy, stews, soups and various sauces. The most commonly used oil is butter, clarified or not.

Now about the myths: during the 1970s and 1980, when Nouvelle Cuisine became the rage, roux fell into disfavor. Roux-based sauces were regarded as being symbolic of "old-style" "heavy" traditional cooking. Instead of using roux, chefs used other methods for thickening and emulsifying their sauces. So here are the top three myths about roux:

  • Roux is somehow horribly fattening. Well, roux is fattening in the sense that it's a mixture of flour and oil, but it's no more fattening than the alternative method of thickening sauces that is often used in restaurants - that of whisking in tons of chilled butter.
  • Roux-based sauces destroy or mask the 'natural flavor' of ingredients. If a roux is prepared correctly, it won't destroy any flavors. Any times you apply a sauce too heavily, regardless of the way it was thickened or not, you're going to mask the natural flavors. Also, if a roux is undercooked, you will get a floury flavor. So a properly cooked roux is going to thicken without being obstrusive.
  • Roux is difficult. It's not - as a matter of fact, I find the buerre blanc method to be a lot easier to screw up (ending up in a oily, separated mess). The two basic things to remember: cook the flour enough in the butter/oil so that it loses its floury flavor, and only add hot liquid to it.

One of the best known, and much maligned, roux-based sauces is a bechamel - otherwise known as "white sauce". It's a flavored milk sauce thickened with roux. If you have never mastered bechamel, here is how to get it perfect every time.

The roux

You will want 1 tablespoon of unsalted butter to 2 tablespoons of plain white flour. If you want to be even more precise, you want 1 weight unit of butter to 1 weight unit of flour (say, 10 grams - 10 grams), but I find that the 1 Tbs - 2 Tbs ratio works fine and is much easier to measure.

1 Tbs butter + 2 Tbs flour will thicken 1 cup of liquid, to produce a sauce of the consistency that is perfect to use as a pouring sauce, and for making lasagna and gratin dishes. It's also the basis for Sauce Mornay, otherwise known as plain old cheese sauce. So, if you want 4 cups of sauce, you'll use 4 Tbs + 8 Tbs, and so on. If you want a stiffer sauce, say for making cream croquettes, you would use more roux.

Melt the butter over a medium-high heat in a heavy-bottom pan. Add the flour, and stir around vigorously. It wil first turn creamy looking, then start to look a little grainy - this means that the flour granules have absorbed the butter. For a bechamel, stop right here and take the pan off the heat before it starts to turn brown. This is the basic light or "blonde" roux you want for thickening liquids in an unobstrusive way. The longer you cook a roux, the darker it gets, and stronger tasting - a toasty, deep taste. Dark roux is used for Cajun/Creole dishes like gumbo, for example. You can also use dark roux to color up a pale gravy.

The bechamel sauce

To make 4 cups of bechamel, put 4 1/2 cups of milk (whole if you want the richest sauce, but you can also use low-fat..skim really doesn't work well) in a heavy-bottom pan. The extra 1/2 cup is to account for evaporation. Throw in 1 whole peeled onion stuck with 1 clove, and 1 bayleaf. Bring this up to heat and simmer for a while (at least 15 minutes) so that the milk becomes steeped with the flavors of onion-bayleaf-clove.

When the milk is piping hot and suitably steeped with flavor, make the roux using 4 Tbs butter + 8 Tbs flour, as described above. Now add the milk to the roux, one ladle at a time (straining out the flavoring incredients), and mix vigourously until the roux and liquid are amalgamated. Do not add the next ladleful until the mixture is smooth. Continue adding the liquid until the sauce is the thickness you require. Season with salt and pepper (white if you must have a pure white sauce, but I always just use black) and a little grated nutmeg

What if your bechamel (or any other roux-based sauce or gravy) is lumpy despite all your precautions? There is one thing that will fix any lumpiness: an immersion or stick blender. It's not just for pureeing veggies in soups or whirring up your powdered protein drinks! A few seconds of blending with this tool will de-lump your sauce in no time. A basic stick blender such as this one doesn't cost much, takes up very little counter or drawer space, and is endlessly useful. If you don't have a stick blender, you can try to get as many lumps out of as possible by vigorously mixing the sauce with a whisk, and then if you want a perfectly smooth sauce, simply strain it through a sieve.

Now, you have conquered roux and bechamel - what to make with it? Stay tuned.

Addendum 1: for a very traditional bechamel, the onion (or shallot) is sautéed in butter along with a small amount of chopped veal, but I find that for most modern dishes requiring bechamel this is not really necessary.

Addendum 2: In Japan, 'white sauce' is available in cans. I don't know why other countries don't have canned bechamel, since t's so useful.

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You mention a ratio of 1:2

You mention a ratio of 1:2 (1 tablespoon butter to 2 tablespoon flour) at the roux making stage, but later in the bechemel stage you mention a ratio of 1:1 (4 tablespoon butter to 4 tablespoon flour).

I’d love to follow your recipe if you could clarify which one is right?! Or does bechemel sauce always use a different ratio?

Thanks

anon. | 22 February, 2008 - 18:47

You are right, the second

You are right, the second amount was a typo which I’ve corrected. No one noticed for 2 years! :) The ratio should be 1 Tbs. butter to 2 Tbs. flour.

maki | 23 February, 2008 - 01:22

Thank you - this is the

Thank you - this is the perfect roux as its title! I have had terrible problems trying to make roux and bechemel sauce in the past for lasagne - your instructions make it really easy to follow and I had no lumps in the sauce this way - thank you again!

anon. | 24 March, 2008 - 19:14

In Spain, bechamel is

In Spain, bechamel is available in grocery stores in refrigerated cartons. Spanish people are quite fond of bechamel croquetas (often with Manchego, jamon, and other goodies) so I guess this makes sense. While in Spain this past summer, I never did see anyone consume bechamel in any form other than these croquetas

Some nice insights on measuring ingredients for the sauce. Thanks!

Pat | 12 December, 2008 - 21:43

Perfect Roux + Perfect European Curry...?

I love curry. However, I am of the opinion that INDIAN curry has the best flavors of the lot, and JAPANESE curry has the best texture of the lot. So, I have been attempting to take a rather simple European chicken curry recipe that my friends and I are quite fond of, and convert it into a roux-type curry that would have that thick, hearty texture that I love.

So riddle me this: Do you think that this 'conversion' would be as simple as adding the roux to the curry? Being European, the original recipe produces a very watery sauce, much like Indian curry, and the ingredients and preparation are very similar to the recipe you posted in February...

Kosetsu | 22 January, 2009 - 21:00

Re: Perfect Roux + Perfect European Curry...?

Well, you could certainly give it a go and see how it works. That's the only sure way to find out!

maki | 22 January, 2009 - 21:40

Re: Perfect Roux + Perfect European Curry...?

Well then, this calls for an experiment! In the name of SCIENCE!!

I will also test what would happen when one adds a pre-packaged "cube" of S&B curry roux to the recipe... I will return with the results!

Oh, and also, great blog! I will definitely be waiting for more awesome recipes from you. =)

Kosetsu | 23 January, 2009 - 19:26

Re: Perfect roux and bechamel

I am having a hard time replicating Japanese Curry Roux that are available off the shelf like Vermont from House, or Golden Curry from S&B.

To make Japanese Curry Roux do I have to use Japanese Curry Powder (from S&B) or Indian Curry powder will do?

i am following your instruction but I am still not being able to match the taste like those pre-made roux.

A video of making authentic Japanese Roux will be highly appreciated.

java | 25 June, 2009 - 22:14

Re: Perfect roux and bechamel

I have usually managed a roux sauce reasonably well. For some reason today, the butter and flour refuse to mix! The butter seperates and I end up with lumpy flour goo. Do you think this could be caused by old ingredients. I am wondering if the flour is stale?

Robin | 6 April, 2010 - 12:09

Re: Perfect roux and bechamel

I have prepared bechamel sauce several times and I have added salt, pepper and nutmeg at the end. The big problem I am facing (I am using the sauce to prepare lasagna) is that it comes out flavorless and a bit extra thickened, more like a undone jello.

Could you please provide some advise?

Jocoque | 20 April, 2010 - 21:29

Re: Perfect roux and bechamel

When you use bechamel in conjunction with pasta, as in a lasagna, you have to consider the added flouriness that the pasta will be adding. So make your bechamel a bit thinner than if you were using it on its own. Also be sure to simmer the milk with the onion, bay leaf and clove, to add as much flavor as you can. You can try adding some sautéed onions instead of just simmering an onion in the milk.

maki | 21 April, 2010 - 02:21

Re: Perfect roux and bechamel

Can I add curry powder do my roux sauce? If so, how?

anon. | 5 February, 2012 - 18:54

Re: Perfect roux and bechamel

I have found the the ratio of flour to butter is not critical, but yours given is VERY easy to remember. The mechanics of roux are quite easy to understand:
Bottom Line - Flour absorbs. Flour gets gooey.
Every micro speck of flour is first infused with oil so it tends to not stick to itself and form dough. In dough, the flour is stuck to itself. In gravy made with roux, the micro speaks of flour re free floating and expanding to their max! It's ok (and safer) to have a little too much oil in the initial roux mix, especially if you're using butter. If your sauce or gravy still tends to lump a bit, add a bit more oil next time. When using less oil in the roux mixture, you've got to add the liquid to the roux more slowly and stir more briskly. This later technique is also the same used when adding cold liquids to hot roux adding only a few ounces at first, then doubling persé the addings as the smoothness is maintained.
In a nut shell... The more oil you use, the better the oil keeps the flour separated and the less work you need to do to keep it separated. And as one final note since a true gourmet cook simply "throws it together", (if you've underestimated the amount of roux needed anhd your sauce is a little bit thin) a bit of corn starch mixed well in cold water and poured SLOWLY into the gravey or sauce mix while stirring well will thicken it in quite well in a few minutes if kept near to simmering. This "fix" works quite well when doctoring a cheese sauce which ended up thinner than expected as can happen quite often when switching from one type of cheese to another whilst experimenting.
Sometime I might tell you about my reverse beef stew. It only takes 40 minutes but tastes like its been simmering all day.

Sid | 9 March, 2012 - 17:23

Re: Perfect roux and bechamel

I made a beef gravy tonight using 4 TB butter and 4TB flour for the roux and 2 cps. of beef broth from the London broil in the crock pot. It (the gravy) came out perfect. Next time though I believe I will use your ratio of 1TB of butter, 2TB of flour just to see if it works. Also I read years ago that another key to making a roux based gravy was using hot to cold when preparing. Cold liquid to the hot pan of roux. What say you? Great web page by the way. Very useful and informative.

steve M | 21 May, 2012 - 08:47

Re: Perfect roux and bechamel

Why does my creamy cheese sauce separate when baking in a broccoli casserole?

anon. | 27 September, 2012 - 05:44

Re: Perfect roux and bechamel

The immersion blender suggestion saved our dinner!

Alex | 7 April, 2013 - 15:48

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