Vegan bechamel (white) sauce is a healthy combination of cauliflower, cashews (just a few), plant-milk, and a few other ingredients to create a flavorful, versatile culinary pleasure.
You call it vegan white sauce. I'll call it vegan bechamel. There's no need to call anything off. They are exactly the same thing.
Bechamel is a French term for 'medium' white sauce. It’s considered a foundational sauce because it's often used to build a final sauce. Traditionally, bechamel is made from butter and cream, hence the foundation bit. The other white sauce that comes to mind, Alfredo, is made using a reduction of cream and is further thickened using parmesan cheese. That makes Alfredo is the byproduct of bechamel.
For those of us who follow a plant-based diet, the emphasis for this recipe is all about vegan. We’re not using any of that pesky butter or cream. Not us. We’re going to have our bechamel and our health too, lucky us.
I’ve gone through multiple variations of bechamel sauces. It’s been elusive, my white whale. Whereas some folks may use a vegan 'butter' or some other oil-based substance, that’s not in my cooking playbook. Don’t bother to think you can get to white sauce using flour and plant-milk. I’ve tried it. Not good. Not good at all.
The idea of using cauliflower was something I learned in a cooking class. Who doesn’t want to get more fiber-filled, antioxidant-rich cauliflower? Of course, we do! Unfortunately, no matter how much nutritional yeast or other ingredients I added, I couldn’t get cauliflower bechamel to taste quite right. And the texture after blending with milk was ok, but how do I say it? It was just pureed cauliflower.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, from yet another cooking class, I made the richest of the vegan bechamel sauces – the cashew bechamel. Holy 'too rich for my blood' Batman! That’s a sauce you can only reserve for special occasions when you have time to spend like 3 hours on your cross-trainer or if you regularly eat a thimbleful of sauce.
How did I solve that? Compromise. It's starting to become a foreign ethos in some circumstances these days. However, as I strive to balance healthy eating with satisfaction, I find myself employing this principle often.
The cauliflower-cashew compromise
One head of cauliflower and ¼ of a cup of raw cashews. Who knew?
There's an interesting compromise between cauliflower and cashews. Despite disproportionate amounts in this recipe, they bring out the best in one another. I discovered that they work so well together, they don’t object to being steamed together.
Steaming cauliflower was no compromise. The steaming method yields a creamier, less 'watery' sauce than if you simmer it. Tossing the cashews in the steamer means you don’t need to remember to soak them.
If you want to prepare the cashews separately, you could, of course, use my favorite trick from my creamed chickpeas. Grind the cashews in a spice grinder before adding them to the food processor. It's a great trick, but why dirty up another kitchen gadget? You've gotta steam the cauliflower anyway. Your sauce will be smooth without that extra step.
While you have the cauliflower and cashews happily steaming, take a few minutes to sauté the onion and garlic. Try not to brown the onions, so plan for about 10 minutes on super low heat. You can add the garlic immediately if you keep the heat down.
Cooking the onion and garlic before adding to the food processor softens them and brings out their natural sweetness. Raw garlic can be too sharp and bitter for a sauce that strives to be on a sweeter side.
I added just a teaspoon of lemon juice to brighten the flavor. I've discovered that lemon juice also balances the taste of the nutritional yeast. Sometimes, it can be a bit overpowering or bitter.
My personal finishing touch is a bit of nutmeg – just a pinch. You can also add a bit of paprika to the sauce or sprinkled over the top. We’ve also used a teaspoon of red chili flakes or black pepper in addition to the white pepper.
When you start blending all the ingredients, it’s a best practice to start by adding 1 cup (or even ½ a cup) of plant milk. Start the blending or food processor on low, then gradually increase the speed and the amount of milk.
Once you reheat the sauce or allow it to sit, it will get thicker. That’s another opportunity to thin it out by adding more milk. It sounds so simple, but this is possibly the trickiest part – getting the consistency where you want it. That’s the thing about adding liquid to any sauce. I call it the salt principle – you can always add more, but you can never take it back.
When you consider the desired consistency, it’s also important to consider your intent. In other words, ‘how are you gonna eat it?’ Intuitively, you might have already reached out for a bag of whole wheat pasta. You won’t be disappointed. But the versatility of this sauce doesn’t end there. Here are a few ideas:
1. Creamy rice or bulgur. Mix in the sauce. You can also take this to full meal status by adding mushrooms or chickpeas.
2. Winter vegetable bake. Add root vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, celery, turnips, rutabagas, or celeriac along with sauteed onions and garlic. Mix together with the white sauce and bake until the veggies are tender.
3. Carrots and parsley. Roasted or simmered carrots smothered with sauce and chopped parsley. Need I say more about this elegant side?
4. Broccoli, hold the cheese sauce. If you find plain old broccoli a bit boring, liven it up! If you want a cheesier flavor, try adding a teaspoon of mild, prepared mustard. It’s kind of amazing.
5. Pasta bake. Mix together pasta, with sauce and top with breadcrumbs. Slide that out of the oven in 20 minutes. Very yummy. Add frozen peas. It's even yummier!
6. Hemp seed parmesan. You can blend our favorite plant-based parmesan right into the sauce or use it as a topper. Do both. It takes the flavor more toward the alfredo side.
Traditional bechamel is rarely eaten without added ingredients to the sauce. I’m fully disclosing here that we already took a battering ram to the idea of classic French bechamel by adding other flavor-building ingredients. This means that you don’t need to withdraw from your creativity bank beyond deciding what kind of pasta to use.
Not a pasta connoisseur by any stretch of the imagination, I personally like shaped pasta like fusilli or tubular pasta like macaroni or smaller penne. The sauce will cling to flat pasta as well, so use whatever you happen to have.
In the scheme of things, I doubt a compromise of an entire head of cauliflower with a few added cashews registers on any scale. And insignificant as that might be, a good compromise is a winner for everyone. In the words of Barak Obama:
A good compromise, a good piece of legislation, is like a good sentence or a good piece of music. Everybody can recognize it. They say, 'Huh. It works. It makes sense.'
Vegan bechamel (white) sauce, a healthy mix of cauliflower, cashews plant-milk, and a few other ingredients create a flavorful versatile sauce.
- 1 head cauliflower cut into florets
- ¼ cup raw cashews
- 1 medium onion, diced
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2-3 cups plant milk (I used oat, but any you prefer will work)
- 1 tsp. lemon juice
- ¼ cup nutritional yeast
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 1/8 tsp. nutmeg (a pinch)
- tsp. white pepper (you can use black pepper as well)
- Place the cauliflower and cashews into a steamer basket. Heat the water to simmer, place the basket, and cover the pot. Steam the cauliflower until very tender when pierced with a fork (about 20 minutes).
- While the cauliflower steams, sauté the onion and garlic on low heat until the onions are translucent (about 10 minutes).
- Add the cauliflower, cashews, onions, garlic, 1 cup of oat milk, lemon juice, nutritional yeast, salt nutmeg, and white pepper to a food processor or blender. Start at a slow speed and gradually increase the speed and the amount of plant-milk until you reach the desired consistency.
- Place the bechamel in a pan and heat through if desired.
- Steaming the cauliflower, rather than boiling or simmering it, keeps it from retaining excess moisture that can compromise the sauce. Steaming the cashews also softens them so that they blend easier.
- It’s important to sauté the onions and garlic at a low temperature. This keeps the onions from getting brown and the garlic from burning.
- A pinch of nutmeg brings out a bit of sweet depth to the bechamel. You can also add a few red chili flakes or paprika to spice things up. This white sauce is the perfect palate to experiment with dried herbs like oregano, basil, or thyme.
- Turn bechamel into a cheesier sauce by adding a teaspoon (or more) of prepared, mild mustard, and/or more nutritional yeast.
- Category: Main Courses
- Cuisine: Plant-based
Keywords: vegan bechamel