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Conflicting information about bechamel sauces

Chef John from Food Wishes just posted a new video about making lump-free bechamel sauces and he says, "Hot roux, cold milk, no lumps." This reminded me of the conflicting information out there about how to get a lump-free bechamel sauce. I've heard the hot roux, cold milk combo, and I myself use the hot roux, hot milk combo (as advocated by Julia Child). And I think I've also heard about every hot-hot, cold-hot combo there is. Why all the differences? And what combo will guarantee that you DO get lumps?

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  1. Bechamel making, along with roux-based sauces in general, have their rules and technique, but seemingly can be incredibly subjective. Chefs seem to have their favorite method, whatever works for them, what they were taught by whom ever. I do what I was taught in culinary school, hot roux, cold milk (although I use room temp or slightly warmed milk, to finish the sauce faster) and no lumps. I use the cold roux, hot milk combo when I have roux is made in advance and stored in the frig, by adding the cold roux to warmed milk, then whisk while heating the sauce.

    I personally think you'll experience lumps when you don't whisk from the time you start adding the milk. I add a little milk, whisk out the sauce to blend, add a little more, whisk, then pour the remainder in slowly, continuously whisking, when the roux-milk mixture looks smooth and well blended, and then whisk frequently until the sauce thickens. No lumps. If you don't whisk in the milk slowly to start, and dump it in all at once, lumping will occur. Sometimes you can whisk the lumps out. Or just put the sauce in the blender for a few seconds or strain.

    I don't believe there's any combo of cold/hot or otherwise that will cause lumps; it's proper, timely, continuous whisking that's most important for a lump-free sauce.

    If you're getting good results from the hot/hot combo, use it. I believe that that particular style was not taught at school, as rapidly adding a hot liquid to a hot roux can result in splashing and burns. I've actually seen that happen in a few pro kitchens. Might be a different story at home, though.

    1. I suspect that every sauce on the planet can fail at one time or another, sooooo... Just use the bechamel method that works most often for you, and when you get lumps.... BLENDER..! '-)

      1 Reply
      1. re: Caroline1

        Or strain it, that's what I did when I first started making it.

        My mother can make it perfect with her eyes closed every time and it drove me nuts. I make the roux and go straight for the milk in the fridge adding gradually and mixing it as it warms up, then adding more and more... my mother adds it all at once and waits for it to thicken constantly whisking for 10 mins or so.

        Do what works for you. Good luck!

      2. I usually end up using hot roux, hot milk. Hot milk, because I was taught by some chef along the way to infuse the milk first with onion, bay, clove (and I use other ingredients depending on the final use). Gives a better tasting bechamel. Never have a problem with lumps. For me the trick is to add the milk small amounts at a time while whisking thoroughly.

        1. I think cold-cold is the least likely to work.
          We're told not to do hot-hot, because of the splashing thing. Usually it ends up being warm roux, start out with a little bit of cool milk, then add the majority of the warm/hot milk.

          With enough whisking, though, I think any combination will work out in the end.

          1. Concur that adding slowly and incorporating continuously is far more important than temperature. Warmed milk is better, but only because it means you've taken the time to infuse the milk with good things like bay leaf and onion or whatever is appropriate.

            FWIW, I often use the Joy of Cooking method that finishes in the oven. It's so nice to ignore it and focus on the rest of the meal, or conversation.

            1. Many a Southern and Midwestern granny make hers by shaking the dickens out of cold milk and flour in a Mason jar, then dumping it into a hot pan, with or without other ingredients to "cream."

              buskwickgirl is right -- it's incorporating the starch and liquid thoroughly that matters.

              5 Replies
              1. re: dmd_kc

                The cold milk/flour or cold water/flour mix is called a "slurry," in restaurant terms, really old skool, but useful at times to thicken a sauce when there's no time or roux in sight. Believe it or not, sometimes I use a slurry for pot roast gravy, just seems to be the right thickener for a sauce that's a little too thin.

                1. re: bushwickgirl

                  Bushwickgirl, I watched a Martha Stewart Thanksgiving special in which she prepared gravy. I thought, "Okay, I'm going to get a detailed description from an expert on how to make turkey gravy without having it lump up on me." Imagine my surprise when she took a mason jar, added flour and what was, apparently, room temperature water to it, and had an assistant shake the heck out of it. Then she poured it into the defatted turkey pan juices, stirred it in a half hotel pan with a whisk over heat and quickly had lump free gravy.

                  Isn't that a technique almost perfectly designed to create lumps in your gravy? I would have thought so, but apparently not. Also, if you don't cook the flour beforehand, doesn't your gravy end up with that awful raw flour taste? Apparently not.

                  I've used slurries before with corn starch. I've just never seen it used with flour and thought that there was a good reason that I had not. Apparently, not.

                  1. re: gfr1111

                    gfr1111, no, if you shake or whisk it enough, no lumps, or maybe just little tiny ones for the real homestyle look, but a good shake or stir will eliminate the problem. Also, you continue to cook the gravy until the raw flour taste is gone; it actually happens pretty quickly. I use the slurry method occasionally, as I wrote, and "gravy," as opposed to pan sauces, reductions, or roux-thickened sauces, seem to be the most appropriate use for a slurry.

                    Whether you use cornstarch or flour kind of depends on the look you want; a cornstarch-thickened sauce will be glossy and somewhat translucent, while the flour slurry results in a more gravy-style appearance. Bear in mind, using a slurry is a thickening shortcut, more than anything, imo, but I'm sure, as Martha did, people use them as a main source of thickening agent.

                    I've read ole-timey chefs used to put the flour on a sheet pan in the oven with a pilot light overnight to "brown" a bit, for extra flavor and color in the gravy. I tried it once with the pilot light and nothing happened. I think you actually need to have the oven on low.

                  2. re: bushwickgirl

                    My grandmother used the same technique to make all sorts of what we'd call bechamel today -- for macaroni and cheese, for tuna noodle casserole, and so on. It's all about the proportions as to whether it functions as a slurry or not. No, she didn't start with a roux, but she cooked the whole sauce down, and I doubt seriously any one of us could tell the difference once the finished product came to the table.

                    1. re: dmd_kc

                      Yup. I wish I could remember what my mom did for "white sauce" as it was commonly referred to in the 60's, as a base for cheese sauce, etc. I believed she made a roux but I'm sure she used the slurry technique for thickening gravy.

                      I don't know how old you are but possibly your grandmother lived during a time when butter was at a premium price or generally not available, as it was during WWII. Either that, or it was the generally accepted style of cooking during our grand-mother's time.

                      I agree that's it's very hard to tell the difference.

                  1. re: almansa

                    The Wondra method- 2 tbs. flour, 2 tbs. butter, 1-2 cups cold milk. All in saucepan over med-low heat, whisking constantly. No lumps. Ever. adam

                    1. re: adamshoe

                      And it's nice to have Wondra around the house for dredging - especially tofu and eggplant.