A favorite from the archives, this post was originally published in April 2009.
I generally steer clear of ready-made preparations and other “helpers” sold at the grocery store: not out of snobism, but I love to cook, I devote time and thought to selecting good ingredients, and I welcome the opportunity to practice and experiment, so I am reluctant to give up the driver’s seat and let some industrial product take over.
But my friend Estérelle recently told me that she keeps ready-made béchamel sauce in her pantry for impromptu gratins, and more specifically, she mentioned an organic vegan béchamel called Soja Gratin (soja = soy), manufactured by the French brand Bjorg.
This successful attempt made me curious about a homemade vegan béchamel: the classic béchamel sauce is made with butter, flour, and milk, so why not just make it with oil, flour, and some sort of non-dairy milk?
I don’t think I would ever have thought to buy anything of the sort, but Estérelle is one of the handful of people I would trust with my life in the kitchen, so I purchased some of this sauce, sold in tiny cartons in the organic aisle of the supermarket.
I gave it a try a couple of weeks ago in a gratin of Swiss chard — my produce seller at the greenmarket has flamboyant bunches of it these days — and was favorably impressed: despite the not-so-appetizing, cement gray color of the sauce when I poured it in, it baked to a creamy consistency, and its pronounced nutmeg flavor played along with the chard quite well.
But what this successful attempt really did was make me curious about a homemade vegan béchamel: the classic béchamel sauce is made with butter, flour, and milk, so why not just make it with oil, flour, and some sort of non-dairy milk?
The next weekend, armed with a fresh bunch of Swiss chard, I set out to make my first batch, using sunflower oil, wheat flour, and oat milk, with which I’ve been experimenting of late*. It worked flawlessly and took all of twelve minutes to make. I may buy more of that ready-made soy béchamel for convenience, to use when I don’t have milk on hand, but when I can, I’ll just as quickly make my own.
Note that, because I am not a vegan (my interest in non-dairy milks is just for the sake of variety), I add an egg to the gratin to make it richer, but you can hold the egg if you prefer — the béchamel alone is enough to produce a lovely texture — or you can substitute silken tofu. I also top my gratins with oat bran and a little Comté cheese because I like the flavor, but you can use nutritional yeast if you wish to (or must) avoid dairy ingredients altogether.
I’ve already adapted this recipe to make an excellent leek gratin using young, pencil-thin leeks, and I am confident that my mother’s cauliflower gratin will take just as well to this oat milk béchamel.
- 1 kilo (2.2 pounds) Swiss chard (blettes in French)
- olive oil
- 1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
- 240 ml (1 cup) non-dairy béchamel (store-bought or from recipe below)
- 1 egg (optional)
- 30 grams (1 ounce) freshly grated comté (substitute the gratable cheese of your choice or some nutritional yeast)
- 2 tablespoons oat bran (substitute bran from another grain, or dried breadcrumbs)
- salt, pepper
- Separate the leaves from the stalks of the chard (I use kitchen shears to cut along the stalks). Trim and slice the stalks, then chop the leaves, keeping stalks and leaves separate.
- Heat a gurgle of oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cook for 2 minutes, stirring frequently, until translucent. Add the Swiss chard stalks and cook for 5 minutes, until softened, stirring from time to time. Add the leaves and cook for 2 minutes, until just wilted.
- Drain the vegetables (this is important, otherwise the excess water will pool at the bottom of the gratin dish; keep the cooking juices to use as a light broth). Season with salt and pepper (ready-made béchamel may be strongly seasoned, so season the chard accordingly).
- Preheat the oven to 200° C (400° F) and grease a medium baking dish with a little oil.
- In a bowl, whisk together the béchamel and the egg, if using. Fold in the cooked chard, pour into the prepared baking dish, and level the surface. Sprinkle with cheese and oat bran, and bake for 15 minutes, until set and golden. Switch to broiler setting for a couple more minutes if you'd like the top to brown a little further, but watch it closely. Let set for 5 minutes before serving.
- 4 teaspoons vegetable oil
- 2 tablespoons flour
- 240 ml (1 cup) plain oat milk, or other non-dairy milk, cold or at room temperature
- salt, pepper, nutmeg
- Heat the oil in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour, stir it in quickly with a wooden spoon, and cook for 2-3 minutes, stirring continuously, without coloring (that's a roux blanc).
- Remove from the heat, add a little of the milk, whisk it in to form a smooth mixture, then add the rest of the milk over medium heat, a little at a time, whisking well between each addition. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook for 5-7 minutes, stirring continuously, until thickened to a velvety consistency. Remove from the heat, season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg, and use while still warm.