Bechamel sauce (or Sauce Béchamel if you are French) is one of those workhorses in the kitchen we tend to take for granted, until life throws a monkey-wrench into the works … like having to transition to a gluten-free diet!
Its a classic in the French culinary world, having first been codified by Auguste Escoffier in 1903 in Le Guide Culinaire, and deemed one the 5 mother sauces that form the basis of Haute Cuisine.
Bechamel at its core is simply a dairy-based sauce, thickened with a flour that has been cooked so the starch molecules absorb liquid and swell. Bechamel can have herbs or spices added – the classic Escoffier recipe calls for an onion studded with clove, but bay and nutmeg are also classic flavourings. The food geek in me would like to point out it is the starch that gives Bechamel its texture, NOT the gluten, therefore replicating the results is an easier task than you might have assumed.
- Add cheese and you have a Mornay sauce which makes a great way to get kids to eat broccoli, but also forms the base of homemade mac & cheese.
- Add some mustard and herbs and fold in a goodly amount of vegetables and top with breadcrumbs … voila you have a gratin!
- Stir in some egg yolks to the cooked Bechamel with whatever you please, and fold in the whipped egg whites and bake, and you have a souffle
- Use it to bind leftover mashed potatoes and fish or chopped chicken, or ham and roll in some breadcrumbs and you have croquettes
- Add a splash of wine before you add the milk, and Fold in some chicken and vegetables, and you have a quick pot-pie filling.
- Start with sausage meat and use the drippings as your fat, and fold in the sausage meat at the end and you have biscuits and gravy!
Anyway, you get the idea, the sauce is as versatile as your imagination! But traditionally it is made with wheat flour: equal weights of flour and butter, with milk stirred in, with the flour weighing about 10% of the milk. (For those of you who have made bread using the Tangzhong method … notice anything familiar there?!)
The good news is that this is one of those cases where method and technique can be applied quite well with gluten-free flours! Some flours are better suited to bechamel than others, mainly because of mouthfeel once the starches have cooked, but I’ve successfully made bechamel out of most of the flours from the grain family, and also used legume flours in a pinch. I do find also that gluten-free flours aren’t quite as sticky as wheat flour, so take a little more than with wheat flour to get the desired consistency.
My Ratio for Gluten-free Bechamel
- 1 T + 1 tsp gluten-free flour
- 1 T butter or fat
- 1 cup of milk
Top 5 flours I like to use to make Gluten-free Bechamel:
1. Sweet rice flour
2. Raw buckwheat flour (you can make this by blitzing raw buckwheat groats in a coffee grinder)
3. Masa harina
4. Sorghum flour
5. Millet flour flour
But this doesn’t mean you can’t use for example, brown rice flour – just make sure to cook the sauce a few minutes longer if you are using any of the whole grain flours, otherwise they will be gummy and unappetizing b/c the starches take longer to hydrate.
Some people like to use starches such as cornstarch or tapioca starch – these will also work, but give too slick a texture IMO (more like fruit pie filling than sauce)
Turn your burner to medium heat, and melt the butter or oil in a small saucepan. Add the flour, and stir to ensure the flour is fully coated with the oil.
Continue to stir until the roux begins to dry out a bit and just starts to become golden, about 3-5 minutes.
Add 1/4 of the milk, stirring well to loosen the roux. The mixture will begin to thicken into a paste as it heats up. Stir in the remaining milk and mix well with a whisk, stirring to avoid clumps forming.
Continue to whisk as the mixture thickens. It will be ready when your whisk leaves “tracks” in the sauce. If you are adding cheese, turn the heat to low, and add grated cheese gradually until it is melted.
A note on freezing
Bechamel forms the basis of many dishes that are great to prepare in larger batches and freeze! There are a few of the gluten-free flours, however, that do not freeze well, losing their viscosity and binding properties after freezing and thawing – the cell walls actually rupture, causing your sauces to break and weep (not an attractive quality).
The 2 main culprits are rice flours and potato starch/flour – Generally if I’m making something bound for the freezer, I avoid rice as a thickener (also note that rice-based pastas will disintegrate on freezing and thawing) and stick with the corn, sorghum or buckwheat