Basic White Sauce (Béchamel)

Basic white béchamel sauce in a gravy boat and also drizzled over white asparagus

The Spruce / Diana Chistruga

  • Total: 15 mins
  • Prep: 5 mins
  • Cook: 10 mins
  • Servings: 4 servings
  • Yield: 1 cup

The basic white sauce, also known as béchamel, is not just used in a variety of dishes—it's also the base for many other sauces. It's easy to make and uses just a few common ingredients that are likely already in your kitchen.

You'll start by making a roux from butter and flour, then season it with salt and pepper, stir in milk, and cook until it's thick. The trick to avoiding lumps is to keep stirring, and controlling the heat will prevent scorching. Follow the recipe's steps and tips, and you'll add this versatile ingredient to your cooking repertoire.

With a little additional seasoning, this medium white sauce can be poured over vegetables or biscuits as a basic gravy. You can also vary the thickness to match any dish you're making. Cream soups call for a thin white sauce; a medium one is typically used in casseroles or in a more complex gravy. Thick and heavy white sauces are generally found in soufflé and croquette batters. You'll find instructions for all the thickness levels you'll need as well as several popular sauce variations.

1:22

Click Play to See This Traditional Béchamel Sauce Come Together

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • Dash freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 cup milk (or half-and-half)

Steps to Make It

  1. Gather the ingredients.

    Ingredients for the white sauce
    The Spruce / Diana Chistruga
  2. Melt the butter in a small, heavy saucepan over low heat.

    Melting the butter in a pot
    The Spruce / Diana Chistruga
  3. Whisk the flour into the melted butter.

    Whisking the flour in the butter
    The Spruce / Diana Chistruga
  4. Add the salt and freshly ground black pepper.

    Salt and pepper are added the sauce
    The Spruce / Diana Chistruga
  5. Cook over low heat, stirring, for a full 2 minutes to minimize the taste of the flour. If your mixture is thickening slowly, continue cooking in 30-second intervals until thick and bubbly.

    Cooking over low heat until it thickens and bubbles
    The Spruce / Diana Chistruga
  6. Turn up the heat slightly, then slowly add the milk, stirring constantly.

    The milk is added and stirred with a whisk
    The Spruce / Diana Chistruga
  7. Bring to a low simmer and continue cooking slowly until the white sauce is smooth and thickened, about 10 minutes.

    The sauce is thickened over a low simmer
    The Spruce / Diana Chistruga

How Can I Adjust the Thickness of White Sauce?

To change the thickness of a white sauce, simply use more or less butter and flour (keeping them equal) while using the same amount of milk.

  • Thin white sauce: Use 1 tablespoon of butter and 1 tablespoon of flour.
  • Medium white sauce: Use 3 tablespoons of butter and 3 tablespoons of flour. (Slightly thicker than the 2-tablespoon version in the recipe.)
  • Heavy white sauce: Use 4 tablespoons of butter and 4 tablespoons of flour.

With any of these, if the cooked sauce is a little thicker than you'd like, stir in 1/2 tablespoon at a time of milk until it reaches your desired thickness. To thicken a cooked sauce that came out too thin, try cornstarch instead of flour. Mix 1/2 tablespoon each of cornstarch and water to create a slurry, then stir it into the sauce. This avoids introducing the flour taste that you cooked out while making the roux.

Tips

  • Light stock, cream, or a combination may be used in place of the milk (see the variations below).
  • Add more flavor by seasoning with celery salt, nutmeg, a teaspoon of lemon juice, onion juice, or sherry, or a few tablespoons of chopped chives or parsley.
  • Avoid substituting the all-purpose flour with self-rising flour because self-rising flour contains baking powder and salt. If you only have bread, cake, or pastry flour, they should work in the white sauce because the primary difference is the gluten content. Even better is a combination of bread and cake flours (essentially making all-purpose flour).

Can White Sauce Be Made in Advance?

White sauce is typically best when made right before it's needed. However, it can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 3 days in a sealed container. Heat it up gently before use and stir in 1 tablespoon at a time of milk or cream if it's too thick. It can also be frozen in a sealed container for up to 6 months.

Recipe Variations

  • Standard béchamel sauce: Add the milk to the medium white sauce recipe alongside 1 small onion studded with 3 cloves, a bay leaf, and a grating of nutmeg.
  • Cheese sauce: Add 1/2 to 1 cup of shredded cheese to the sauce as soon as you take it off the burner. Stir until the cheese has melted. Use this version in a casserole, drizzle it over vegetables, or toss it with pasta or rice.
  • Cheddar sauce for macaroni and cheese: Double a recipe for medium white sauce; add 1/2 teaspoon of dry mustard powder along with the salt and pepper. Add 2 cups of shredded sharp cheddar cheese and stir until melted. Cook 2 cups of elbow macaroni following the package directions; drain well and combine with the cheese sauce.
  • Velouté sauce: Instead of milk, this sauce is made with stock or broth. Use chicken, beef, or fish stock, or use vegetable broth. Depending on the kind of stock or broth you use, this is a good sauce to serve with chicken, beef, fish, seafood, or vegetables.
  • Herb Sauce: Add about 1/2 teaspoon of dried basil, chives, or dill to the sauce a few minutes before it's done. Or add about 1 teaspoon of fresh herbs.
  • Low-fat white sauce: This recipe skips the butter and uses low-fat or nonfat milk. It also uses cornstarch as a substitute for flour.

What's the Difference Between White Sauce and Alfredo?

While the two sauces look the same, there is a noticeable difference in taste. Alfredo sauce typically doesn't begin with the roux, preferring to skip the flour and instead heating butter and cream. It also includes Parmesan cheese and parsley for flavor. In comparison, white sauce is very basic and bland but offers lots of potential for a variety of flavors and uses. This cream sauce variation is a good alternative to Alfredo for pasta. Simply season it as desired.