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Sauce-making technique (bechamel)

Perhaps a dumb question, but:

Is it really necessary to pre-heat the milk you add to a roux to make bechamel? I missed this detail when I first learned to make it and haven't really bothered since. Does heating the liquid you add really make a difference (flavor or texture-wise)? I can see how not doing so could lengthen the time bringing the sauce back to a simmer. But...so?

Thanks for your ideas.

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  1. Golly, I'm glad you asked this. I've never heated milk when making a bechamel. Now I'm curious too!

    1 Reply
    1. re: LauraGrace

      I was taught to add warm to hot. If I remember correctly, Chef said to avoid temperature extremes and never get the roux too hot.

      However, since others have (incorrectly) cited Larousse Gastronomique: It says to boil the milk with the aromatics and set aside for 30 minutes.

      The Professional Chef instructs adding cool roux to hot liquid or cool liquid to hot roux.

      The only time I had a problem was using milk straight from the fridge.

    2. It probably helps the sauce come together easier (?) but I wouldn't know because I never did it.

      To the roux, I start slowly with adding the milk, maybe 1/4 cup at a time...whisk till incorporated....then repeat until at a consistency where I can dump in all the milk and it will incorporate in smoothly.

      Curious to know if I'm missing out on something as well.

      1 Reply
      1. re: 4Snisl

        Heating the milk in a separate saucepan and ladling it into the cooked roux

        -- creates a glossier, shinier bechemel
        -- creates a much smoother bechemel
        -- thickens much more quickly.

        I've done it both ways a jillion times. Heating the milk is always better. Heat it in the microwave if you don't do it stovetop. And don't forget the nutmeg.

      2. ive never heard of pre-heating either....maybe it just helps it come together faster? I know the first time I made bechamel I tried to use skim milk. That was a disaster :) Learned my lesson since then. :)

        1. I too was told I should heat up the milk before whisking it into the roux. However I do not do that and never had a problem.

          1. I believe that heating the liquid in a bechamel is to help prevent lumps, but one can make a lump free bechamel without heating the milk.

            1. I've never heated the milk.

              1. Heating the milk makes it less lightly for a lumpy sauce. The generally theory is hot liquid to hot roux. As one can tell from some previous posts, it is not absolutely necessary.

                2 Replies
                1. re: PBSF

                  The general theory is NOT hot liquid to hot roux. Where are you getting this from?

                  The general theory is cold liquid to hot roux (or vice versa), NEVER hot to hot.

                  Moist starch gelatinizes most rapidly in the 80 deg C. (176 deg. F.) realm. Hot milk can easily approach that, and, even if it's cooler, the net temperature from combining the milk with the very hot roux will be high. At this temperature gelatinization is rapid.

                  Rapid gelatinization = massive clumping.

                  Always cold to hot Or hot to cold. NEVER hot to hot.

                  1. re: scott123

                    What the heck? Not in every classical cooking class and technique I've ever read.

                2. jfood uses heated milk in his roux

                  1. I've done both, using pre-heated milk and not in the same recipe, and really the only difference I have observed is minimal. All it seems to do to me is leave you with a hotter roux/milk mixture, so it can save you some time if you need to bring that to a simmer. I haven't noticed any difference in taste.texture. I don't generally have problems with lumps anyway so can't speak to any impact on lumps.

                    1. I've never heated the milk and never had lumpy sauce.

                      1. I also have never heated the milk and never had lumpy sauce.

                        1. Thanks everyone! I will most likely continue being lazy. ;)

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: ChristinaMason

                            it's a good rule of thumb to have your mise-en-place at room tem, especially stuff like milk, eggs and butter. cold milk to hot roux can startle the stuff into lumps, which obviously can be whisked out, but, meh, avoid the hassle, ya know?

                          2. I made Giada's Chicken Tetrazzini yesterday and it said to have milk and cream at room temperature. I never heat mine either and didn't notice any difference with it left on the counter for an hour

                            1. Here's the story:
                              If you've just made your roux and it's hot, you do not need to heat the milk. Add it directly to the roux, while whisking.
                              If you've made your roux in advance and it's cold, then you need to heat the milk. Add the roux to the hot liquid, again while whisking.

                              Restaurants often made large quantities of roux in advance (if they use it, roux-based sauces are a bit passe these days) and store, chilled or even frozen.
                              Rather than trying to re-heat the roux and risk burning it, the liquid (milk, in the case of a bechamel) is heated and small amounts of roux are whisked in unti the desired thickness is achieved.
                              So the general rule is: Hot roux, cold liquid, cold roux, hot liquid.
                              Of course, if you want to pre-heat your milk, you may, the sauce will just cook a little faster. As far as lumps are concerned, if the roux is properly combined and cooked, and you whisk the liquid well as you add it to the roux, you won't have a problem.
                              If you get do by chance develop lumps, strain them out.

                              And that's my final answer.;-)

                              30 Replies
                              1. re: bushwickgirl

                                Actually, you will still get a smooth sauce if you start with cold roux and cold milk. Because the flour is coated with fat, as in buerre manier, it will not produce lumps regardless of what's hot and what's not. However, adding very hot milk to roux when making bechamel will reduce the time you have to stir the pot while it thickens and cooks out the floury taste.

                                1. re: Caroline1

                                  "However, adding very hot milk to roux when making bechamel will reduce the time you have to stir the pot while it thickens and cooks out the floury taste."
                                  The roux should be cooked sufficiently first so as to expand the flour grains and "cook" the flour. A properly cooked roux has no flourly taste, but a beurre manie would, as it is basically raw. Beurre manie is added to hot liquid, not cold, to facilitate the sauce finishing process. It's more of an sauce enrichment, to give body, rather than a choice for thickening.
                                  Also, it's much easier to add cold roux to hot liquid, as you spend a lot less time whisking, and as I stated, you can certainly warm your liquid before adding it to your (hot) roux.


                                  An addendum: Add liquid slowly, whisking while pouring. That's the no lumps

                                  1. re: bushwickgirl

                                    Wikepedia? LOL '-)

                                    The white roux of equal parts of butter and flour called for to make a bechamel sauce does not have all of the flour taste cooked out simply because cooking the flour and butter together long enough to do that would produce a "blond" roux. If you're talking about a roux for cajun cooking, then you're right. The flour taste IS cooked out as the very long very slow cooking of the roux calls for color ranging from blond to brown, depending on the dish. And buerre manier is a perfectly acceptable thickener. It is not reserved for finishing a sauce, though just plain butter will add a gloss and when added off heat, will thicken a pan sauce slightly, such as those sauces served with tournedos.

                                    1. re: Caroline1

                                      I respect your opinion but disagree. It takes only a few minutes to cook out the flour in a roux.
                                      As far as beurre manie is concerned, I stand by my statement. "Beurre manie is added to hot liquid, not cold, to facilitate the sauce finishing process. It's more of an sauce enrichment, to give body, rather than a choice for thickening. "
                                      I would certainly choose a roux over a beurre manie to thicken a bechamel. I use beurre manie for two reasons: to give "body" to a sauce, and as an addition to the roux to thicken the sauce to the desired consistency, if it was not met by the roux.
                                      Just an aside: I recently saw an old Julia Child and Jacques Pepin episode where a beouf bourguignon was thickened with a bit of beurre manie, just to "tighten" up the braising liquid a bit.
                                      Whole butter is used as an enrichment and improves appearance and mouthfeel of a pan sauce. We agree on that.
                                      Now, tell me Caroline, what's wrong with Wikipedia? I find very well researched and credible information on many of their pages, and BTW, I can't scan pages from my professional cookbooks into a Chow post for reference.

                                      The only time I've ever had lumps in sauce, many moons ago, was before I learned that you have to dissolve cornstarch in liquid before adding to any liquid; many, many tiny lumps!

                                      1. re: bushwickgirl

                                        Sorry I'm so slow getting back to you but I've been out most of the day. I'd rather stay home! '-)

                                        I'm not sure I have a problem with Wikipedia -- well, beyond my normal problem with Wiki, in that it is sometimes inaccurate or misleading -- but it's just not the first thing that pops to mind for me on issues of cooking.

                                        Anyway, I think you're getting more into the semantics of things than into the actual processes. As my source, I'll use Larousse Gastronomique instead of Wikepedia. LG describes buerre manie as a liason. Look up liaison, and LG says "See thickener." I find that amusing!

                                        The difference between buerre manie and a roux is that buerre manie is added to the (hot) liquid while the (normally hot, but not required) liquid is added to a roux. In both cases they do exactly the same thing: They thicken the liquid.

                                        As I age and slow down, I don't keep my kitchen as well organized as I did when I was younger and the family was full and so was my entertainment calendar. But time was when I used to keep a roll (loaf?) of buerre manie in the refrigerator at all times, as well as other compound butters. I promise you (from first hand experience) that if you want to thicken a pot of liquid such as chicken soup, perhaps to make a chicken pot pie, you CAN just toss a sufficient quantity of buerre manier into the pot and it will thicken the whole thing. If the broth is greasy to start with, it will even help emulsify that fat into the sauce. Won't do a damn thing to reduce the calories or make it more "heart healthy," but it will thicken a fatless broth or thicken and emulsify a fatty broth. But for fatty broths, a slurry of flour and water (or cornstarch or even arrowroot) is probably a better choice.

                                        Just for the record, yes, I am aware that buerre manie was originally used as the liaison of choice in sauces matelote, or to thicken sauces of and for fish. With time it's use spread to other sauces.

                                        Funny you mention lumps with cornstarch. I've never had that happen, but until Wondra flour came on the market, ummm... Well, lots of lumps on occasion, and not always all that small. I wish I could say they were all restricted to pancake batter! As for adding cornstarch without turning it into a slurry first, a couple of days ago I made egg fu yong for luch, and I always make the gravy first. When mine wasn't thick enough, I just sprinkled on more cornstarch while whisking, promising myself that I could seive the sauce if necessary. Worked fine, to my amazement. I was making the sauce in an 8' skillet. Don't think it would have worked as well in a standard saucepan.

                                        1. re: Caroline1

                                          Caroline1, if you're implying that beurre manie and blond roux achieve pretty much the same result in sauces, than I'm going to have to side with bushwickgirl and disagree with you.

                                          Coloring of flour involves dextrinization (the conversion of starch to sugar). Just as the crust of a golden blond loaf of bread will have a different flavor than the crumb, so too will a sauce thickened with a blond roux versus beurre manie.

                                          1. re: scott123

                                            First off, I would NEVER recommend that anyone try to make a bechamel with a blond roux! That wouldn't be bechamel, would it! Only with a white roux, which is why you may need to cook the bechamel a bit to get the four taste out. It depends on the cook and how good one is at keeping the flour from browning at all before adding the liquid. However, if you add cold milk to the hot roux and keep stirring, you will end up eventually with a bechamel. You will just have to stir the pot a whoooole lot longer. I've done it both ways with a successful end result. But my arm does prefer boiling milk. '-)

                                            As for claiming that ANY roux (white, blond or brown) and buerre manie achieve the same end result, yes, that what I am saying. They are both THICKENERS! So it depends on what you're calling "the same result." Same flavor? No. Same ability to thicken? Yes.

                                            As for adding hot liquid to hot roux, that is exactly the way a traditional sauce bechamel is made. My old edition of Larousse Gastronomique, unlike your warning above, does specifically call for adding boiling milk to the hot white roux while stirring. If you stir properly, it will not lump. However, the "seizing" effect you talk about is the desired impact when adding flour all at once to boiling water and butter when making a pate au choux. There is a lot of kitchen magic to be attained with fat, flour and liquid! It's all in what you do with them, especially how and when.

                                            And for the record, I think I've pretty much said all I need say about bechamel. And then some... '-)

                                            1. re: Caroline1

                                              "My old edition of Larousse Gastronomique, unlike your warning above, does specifically call for adding boiling milk to the hot white roux while stirring."

                                              I am afraid your French needs a quick refresher. LG says says to boil the milk, cover and set aside for 30 minutes when making bechamel. In fact, I can find no reference for adding boiling milk to a roux in the entire book. I am using a 1988 french version and 2001 english.

                                              Further, the Professional Chef offers the following guidance:
                                              "Cool roux may be added to hot liquid or cool liquid may be added to hot roux."

                                              For the record, you should probably say more about bechamel. ;-)

                                              1. re: sillyfoodies

                                                Roux Redux:

                                                Harold McGee and Scott123 agree: Cooking the flour slightly increases its ability to thicken.

                                                McGee also says that the more flour is browned, the less ability it has to thicken, meaning, it will take a greater quantity of brown roux than blond roux to thicken the same amount of liquid. So, slight disagreement with Caroline 1 that all rouxs and beurre manie have the same power to thicken.

                                                Hot/hot, Cold/Hot: The Rundown:
                                                *Mastering the Art of French Cooking: Add boiling milk to roux.
                                                *Larousse Gastronomique, 1st American Edition, 1961 — “made by pouring boiling milk on white roux.”
                                                *Professional Cooking, 2nd Edition: Scald the milk and gradually add it to the roux.
                                                *The New Basics: unheated milk to hot roux.
                                                *The Professional Chef, 8th Edition: unheated milk to hot roux
                                                *Joy of Cooking: unheated milk to hot roux, “but for better consistency, you may scald the milk beforehand; but be sure — to avoid lumping — that the roux is cool when you add it.”

                                                My results are better, faster and prettier when I heat the milk. A snap in the microwave.

                                                1. re: maria lorraine

                                                  hmmm... I feel you are misreading me, or that I didn't go into sufficient detail. Yes, a roux and a beurre manie are both t hickeners, in the sense that corn starch and arrowroot are both thickeners. But they are not the same. Nowhere did I say that equal quantities of roux or buerre manie will have the same thickening power ounce per ounce or gram per gram. But they WILL both thicken!

                                                  1. re: Caroline1

                                                    I was going on this graf of yours, which says that any roux and buerre manie thicken the same:

                                                    "As for claiming that ANY roux (white, blond or brown) and buerre manie achieve the same end result, yes, that what I am saying. ...Same flavor? No. Same ability to thicken? Yes."

                                                    So, that was unclear, but my reason for commenting on it was to point out to cooks the big difference in thickening power between a blond roux and one that's brown or black.

                                              2. re: Caroline1

                                                Okay, first of all, I absentmindly typed blond roux, but I meant to type white. A white roux IS cooked, albeit briefly and that slight amount of cooking is going to change it's ability to thicken as well as change the taste of the sauce.

                                                In addition to the dextrinization that I mentioned before, melting the butter in a white roux helps to drive some of the water off, which, in turn, produces less clumping, so texturally, white roux is superior to beurre manie. Beurre manie, as has been mentioned elsewhere in this thread, should only be used as a last resort.

                                                "If you stir properly, it will not lump"

                                                Even though, visually, it looks like there's no lumping when you vigorously whisk hot milk into hot roux, I can assure you, on the granular level, there is quite a lot of lumping. Without proper dispersal of the individual fat coated flour grains prior to gelatinization, you're going to have small lumps- lumps that may not be detectable by the naked eye, but will most definitely be detectable by the palate. Flour lumps, regardless of how little/extreme, can always be simmered out, but, because bechamel has milk proteins that will brown with extended heat, long simmering is not an option. In theory, one could go hot to hot with a dairy free gravy/sauce, and, when the mouthfeel isn't silky smooth, just simmer it for an hour (or more) and produce the desired result. With bechamel, though, this isn't an option. In order to maintain an uncooked milk flavor, you want to keep the simmering to a minimum- no more than about 20 minutes. This is just not long enough to resolve the textural impairment resulting from hot milk combining with hot roux.

                                                Am I splitting hairs here? Perhaps. Am I being a perfectionist? Probably. I can guarantee you that a hot to cold/cold to hot bechamel will always be superior to hot to hot, even if that superiority is only slight. For those that want to save their arms, feel free to go hot to hot, but also be aware that the end result will not be quite as silky smooth.

                                                1. re: scott123

                                                  You mean I've been doing it correctly all along, thanks to my laziness! Yippee!

                                                  1. re: scott123

                                                    I've actually found hot to hot to be both silkier and glossier, and the most efficient. No graininess whatsoever visually or on the palate, but perhaps that's due to the blond roux I use (with its ample gelatinization and increased enzymatic action for thickening).

                                                    1. re: scott123

                                                      scott123, do you really mean cold to hot / hot to cold or should it be cool to hot / hot to cool? I gave a call to my former Chef. He said it will all work as long as you don't have extreme temps and warned about cold to hot roux and violent spattering. I only asked about liquids and roux not specifically bechamel though.

                                                      Funnily enough, he says that most cafes and regular bistros are using a powdered bechamel for croque monsieur / madame, etc. He even said Knorr had the best "firmness and feeling". ( I am guessing stability and mouth feel?) Before you all jump on him. He doesn't use it. It "wouldn't do" for his kitchen. He was only surprised by the quality.

                                                      Now, I haven't tried cold to hot / hot to cold for bechamel because I have always wanted to infuse it with additional flavor. Are you saying that it is worth infusing and putting into fridge?

                                                      It also might be worth noting that I have only used bechamel as the preferred delivery system for cheese or lubricating the croques.

                                                      I am merely an accomplished cookbook cook and former resto principal, but can make the french staples blindfolded. However, I have never recalled a recipe that does not ask for warm milk - usually infused, nor do I recall the kitchens using cold milk. BUT I am going to try it this weekend!

                                                      Let me know any tips or tricks!

                                                      1. re: sillyfoodies

                                                        To clarify, Chef is back in France. The French cafes and bistros are using the powdered stuff. Remember, before you poo poo it to harshly that they brought us "boil in bag" meals. ;-)

                                          2. re: bushwickgirl

                                            jfood would agree that wikipedia is less than a great source for a recipe but Saveur magazine had an article using Hazan's recipe and it has hot milk.


                                            And Fanny Farmer has it hot as well:


                                            1. re: jfood

                                              Tempering (whisking) in the milk slowly is supremely important, I don't think its been addressed particularly in this beat-to-death thread.;-)
                                              Hot roux+hot milk=sputtering, splashing and burning of flesh.

                                              My final word, I promise.

                                              1. re: bushwickgirl

                                                You add the hot milk gradually, using a ladle, so there is no sputtering.

                                        2. re: bushwickgirl

                                          That "roux basedsauces are a bit passe these days" is a helluva indictment. But, as was said of prostitution, you can make it illegal ut you can never make it unpopular

                                          1. re: hazelhurst

                                            "Restaurants often made large quantities of roux in advance (if they use it, roux-based sauces are a bit passe these days) and store, chilled or even frozen."

                                            I was specifically speaking of roux usage in restaurants.
                                            And I did say it is "a bit passe," not illegal.;-)

                                            1. re: bushwickgirl

                                              restaurants rarely use roux anymore. they just don't, unless making something like gumbo that requires it. sauces with flour are too heavy and have fallen out of favor.

                                              1. re: hotoynoodle

                                                Did you understand that that's what I wrote? I'm not sure if you're agreeing with me.

                                                1. re: bushwickgirl

                                                  yes, sorry, i actually replied to hazel. software glitch. i went to culinary school 20 years ago and a roux-based sauce was passe then. we agree. :)

                                                  however, i find wikipedia not very reliable for food or wine info. it would not be my go-to in either area. all they need is verifiable info, not accurate or effective.

                                                  1. re: hotoynoodle

                                                    Well, I read through the Wiki info and if I find it suspicious, then I look elsewhere; I found the roux/beurre manie/bechamel business info in keeping with what I was taught.
                                                    Where did you go to school? I went to J & W, '81. Things have changed there...
                                                    Haven't made a roux (except for gumbo or mac & cheese) since the early '80's.

                                                    1. re: bushwickgirl

                                                      Made one last night for cauliflower with cheese sauce -- yum!

                                                2. re: hotoynoodle

                                                  This is the home cooking forum is it not? Do we really care what restaurant chefs feel about roux? ;)

                                                  This might change in another couple decades, but in home cooking, roux rules the roost.

                                                  In 22 days from now, will homes across America be serving their roast beast with foams or sauces thickened with gums? I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess no ;)

                                                  1. re: scott123

                                                    ok, so you use roux for your turkey gravy. not everybody makes gravy and many make it quite poorly. many, including myself, don't even like it. if i ever do anything like that, it's strictly a reduction, i don't get the fixation on gums.

                                                    how many nights a week are home cooks making roux-based sauces? except for some on these boards, most home cooks don't even know that gravy doesn't come out of a jar.

                                                3. re: bushwickgirl

                                                  It's redundant and certainly not the most wonderful sounding sentence, but something along the lines of:

                                                  "Restaurants often made large quantities of roux in advance (if they use it, roux-based sauces in restaurants are a bit passe these days) and store, chilled or even frozen."

                                                  might have reduced any potential confusion.

                                                  Presently, it reads a lot like roux-based sauce are a bit passe everywhere. Which, you and I both know, is definitely not the case.

                                                  1. re: scott123

                                                    No, just passe in restaurants. My point in even mentioning the restaurant technique was to let home cooks (of which I am now one) know that roux can be made in advance and stored and how it should be used when made in advance. Just a tip for happy cooking. ;-)

                                            2. I always through the milk in the microwave to warm it up. No lumps and also makes the sauce thicken much more quickly.

                                              1. Just timing. It takes so little time to make roux w/ warm milk so I actually think of that way as the lazy way, not yours.;-)

                                                1. The way I learned bechamel at cooking school, was to put bay leaf, onion, peppercorns in the milk. So you have to heat it to infuse it with the flavours.

                                                  2 Replies
                                                  1. re: Sooeygun

                                                    Ah, good point. I always throw those (minus the onion) right in the milk-roux mix, then fish them out when it's done. Not very effective.

                                                    Is nutmeg a traditional ingredient, or is that just me? I always add a dash.

                                                    1. re: ChristinaMason

                                                      I like the idea of infusing the milk first, too. I like nutmeg in my bechamel, depending on what I'm using it for.

                                                  2. i've tried the hot roux hot milk....cold milk with flour...etc etc

                                                    the fastest and easiest way of making a basic bechemel is to use a microwave!
                                                    you stir in the flour in cold milk together with other stuff you wanted to add apart from cheese as certain cheeses will get denatured when exposed to high heat. zap for 2 minutes depends on your microwave and volume and stir and combine the rest...

                                                    do i get lumps? no...
                                                    does it look and taste the same? yes...

                                                    and less washing up, less supervision and no scorched bits ever!

                                                    2 Replies
                                                    1. re: peanutking

                                                      I know this is a shortcut some people are happy with, but to me, it does not taste nearly the same. When done this way, it just tastes like floury milk gravy to me. Something about whisking the flour and butter together over heat, then adding the milk, really gets the flavor and texture spot-on.

                                                      1. re: ChristinaMason

                                                        Yes, you must cook out the raw flour taste. When the flour lightly browns in the roux, it creates a brioche, subtle caramelized flavor that has depth and appeal.