If you love macaroni and cheese as much as I do (and most Americans), then you have probably tried making it several ways in search of the creamiest macaroni and cheese. Every person I speak with has a different idea of how to make the BEST mac and cheese, but I am going to go out on a limb and say my favorite way to make it is with a bechamel sauce. Not sure what a bechamel sauce is? Let me explain this creamy goodness to you.
Bechamel is one of the five French mother sauces. Not familiar with that term? These sauces are the basis for dozens of other sauces that make up dishes you eat all the time, which is all the more reason to explore them. Developed by the French around the 18th century, these sauces were made for meat, vegetables, soups, stews, pot pies, souffle and so much more.
Here’s a short breakdown:
- Veloute – made by thickening a white stock such as chicken, veal or fish with a roux.
- Espagnole – also referred to as the brown sauce or Brune sauce, Espagnole is made by thickening a brown stock such as beef, duck or the roasted bones of veal, but the addition of tomato puree and mirepoix (your carrot, onion and celery blend, also called a soffrito in Italian), sets this sauce apart from the veloute. It is further reduced to create demi-glace, which is the starting point for many other sauces.
- Hollandaise – made by whisking clarified butter into egg yolks to create a thick sauce. Clarified butter is used because the milk solids in regular butter may disrupt the emulsion that takes place while whisking the ingredients together.
- Tomate – made by rendering salt pork and sauteeing aromatic vegetables to which tomatoes, stock, and a ham bone are added to cook low and slow.
- Bechamel – made by melting butter, whisking in flour to cook, and then adding milk to a creamy, rich sauce. Let’s explore it further.
In The Gourmet Cookbook, bechamel is described as “the mother of all white sauces, named for the marquis de Bechameil, a bon vivant, and financier during the time of Louis XIV.” To further clarify, Julia Child in Mastering the Art of French Cooking explains “sauce bechamel in the time of Louis SIV was a more elaborate sauce than it is today. Then it was a simmering of milk, veal, and seasonings with an enrichment of cream.” Modern sauces are more quick cooking and milk-based without stock.
Bechamel is the root for several other creamy, savory sauces. The addition of grated cheese turns bechamel into a mornay sauce, traditionally made with gruyere and/or parmesan. To make macaroni and cheese, I make a bechamel sauce, which then becomes a mornay sauce once the cheese is added.
To begin this simple sauce, unsalted butter is melted in a saucepan to which flour is added, therefore creating a roux. The roux is the thickening agent for the milk, turning the thin white milk into a savory and slightly thick sauce that can be transformed in so many ways. The roux needs to be cooked for a few minutes to eliminate the taste of the flour. Some let it cook for 3 minutes, others up to 10 or until the roux is golden but not burnt. Milk is then slowly whisked in and left to simmer for 5 minutes or up to several hours. Julia Child explains that a great tasting bechamel can be a quick sauce, and if done correctly it does not need to simmer for a long time, though if you have the means you are welcome to do so.
To make a veloute sauce, simply use a white stock in place of milk. There, you just made two sauces out of one concept! How cool is that?
How much butter, flour and milk should you use? I’ve read dozens of recipes and each one is different, but it really comes down to ratios. The more flour you use, the thicker your sauce will be. To make a general medium-thickness sauce, I use 1 tablespoon of butter, 1 1/2 tablespoons of flour and 1 cup of milk. I encourage you to make this sauce with various ratios to see what results you get.
From there, any ingredient added to the bechamel will transform it from a bechamel to a variant, such as a mornay sauce. Here are a few examples of other bechamel variants, which can be used on vegetables, eggs, fish and poultry:
- Adding cream to the milk-based bechamel gives you a Sauce Creme
- Adding cream and egg yolks to the bechamel gives you Sauce Parisienne
- Adding grated cheese to the bechamel gives you Sauce Mornay
- Adding tomato puree to the bechamel gives you Sauce Aurore
- Adding white wine or vermouth with fresh herbs and shallots gives you a Sauce all Estragon
Yes indeed, the bechamel is the mother of these sauces and much more for your imagination to come.
For this macaroni and cheese, a bechamel is made for shredded gruyere and white cheddar cheese, a blend that has been tested for our preference several times over. Here are a few tips based on my experience melting cheeses:
- Each cheese melts differently. Fine Cooking explains why, and shares how you know which one to choose depending on what you are trying to achieve. I have not had great luck with generic grocery brand yellow sharp cheddar (even though I love eating it).
- The quality of your cheese must be considered. The higher quality cheese will melt better and taste richer.
- Reduced fat cheese does not have enough fat to melt properly.
- Already shredded cheese purchased in a package at the store is an absolute no. A flour-like substance is n the outside of the cheese to prevent it from sticking together in the package, and this prevents the cheese from melting smoothly into the bechamel.
- Shred it thinly for the cheese to melt quickly. If too much is added to the bechamel at once, the cheese will not distribute to melt well.
If you find that your cheese sauce is too gritty, it could be that you did not cook the roux long enough to eliminate the flour taste or you cooked the cheese on too high of heat. It’s a little temperamental, so don’t rush things!
Bechamel sauce is a great sauce to master and can teach you a lot about thickening other things, such as soups, stews, gravy, cream sauces for savory pies and more. Of course, my favorite way is to make it and add shredded cheese for macaroni and cheese!
MACARONI AND CHEESE STUFFED POBLANOS
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 1/4 cup flour
- 2 3/4 cups whole milk
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/2 teaspoon dried yellow mustard
- 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1/8 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 1/2 cups freshly grated gruyere cheese
- 1 1/2 cups freshly grated white cheddar cheese
- 3/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
- 1/2 box elbow macaroni
- 2 poblano peppers, halved with seeds removed
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and grease a 2-quart baking dish with butter.
- In a small saucepan, heat the whole milk over medium heat until warm.
- Melt 4 tablespoons of butter in a medium sized saucepan.
- Add the flour and whisk, cooking for 3-4 minutes or until the roux is a golden yellow color.
- Slowly add the warm milk and whisk until the sauce is thick and bubbly about 3 minutes. Whisk in the salt, dried yellow mustard, cayenne pepper, black pepper.
- Begin to add the shredded cheeses just a little at a time, whisking until cheeses have melted.
- Set a large pot of water on the stove over high heat to boil for the macaroni. Drop the macaroni and cook it for about 6 minutes or until al dente.
- Drain, then stir the macaroni into the cheese sauce.
- Pour the macaroni and cheese into the greased baking dish and bake for 15 minutes.
- Take it out of the oven and stuff a few tablespoons of the macaroni and cheese into the halved poblanos. Bake them for 5-8 minutes or until the poblanos are soft and cooked through.