One of Many Things the Italians Taught the French
Béchamel is one of the five “mother sauces” in classic French cuisine. It is known as besciamella or occasionally balsamella in Italian and is simply called “white sauce” in English. It is comprised ofthree principal ingredients: fat (usually butter), flour, and milk.
Like so many other culinary elements, the French probably stole......er......acquired béchamel from Italian chefs who accompanied Caterina de' Medici to France in the 16th century and then proclaimed it to be their own. Many French chefs debate and deny this, but they would because they are French and spend a lot of time in denial. Balsamella had been around in Tuscany and Emilia for a long time before the French co-opted it and renamed it in order to flatter a French marquis.
Politics and origin aside, béchamel is one of the simplest sauces to make – and one of the easiest to screw up. French culinary authority Auguste Escoffier deemed it to be a “mother” sauce because it is the basis of so many other preparations. It is a key component in lasagna and other pasta dishes and casseroles. It is essential to a good soufflé and forms the base for most cream soups. I make killer creamed potatoes with a béchamel sauce and if you mix in some sausage and pour it over fresh, hot biscuits, you'll be on the express train to Flavortown. (Gotta quit watching Guy Fieri.) Add cheese to béchamel for a Mornay sauce, without which decent macaroni and cheese would be impossible. Besides imparting flavor, béchamel does wonders for the texture of a dish, retaining moisture and adding a richness not achievable by other means.
Here's what you need for a basic béchamel:
1 tablespoon of butter
1 tablespoon of flour
1 cup of milk
salt, to taste
freshly ground nutmeg (optional)
Obviously, you can increase your yield based upon your needs. Just keep your ratios in mind.
A perfect béchamel sauce begins with a roux. (That's pronounced “roo” for all you non-Frenchy types.) A roux is what you get when you cook flour and fat together. The result is the most efficient thickener there is for sauces and gravies. You make a roux by melting butter and then adding in an equal portion of flour. If you want to know why this works, I'll can tell you in one word: gelatinization. When you heat flour in fat, it causes the release of starches in the flour. These starches swell and bond with surrounding liquids, creating a gel and causing the desired thickening effect.
Some varieties of roux call for lard, vegetable oil, or other fats, but butter is by far the most common ingredient. Some recipes specify clarified butter, but regular butter works just as well for most purposes. As with most cooking or baking preparations, using unsalted butter allows more control over salt content in the finished dish, but if salted butter is all you have available, it'll work. Just make sure to taste for seasoning before adding more salt.
The longer you cook a roux, the darker and more flavorful it gets. You don't want an overpowering flavor in béchamel, so you only cook your roux until it turns a very light brown, two or three minutes. Long enough for the raw flour flavor to cook out. The texture of your sauce will depend on the texture of your roux. Generally speaking, you want to use equal portions of flour and butter. But if you're looking for a thicker sauce, you can add a little more flour.
Stir, stir, stir! Keep it moving. Keep stirring or whisking that roux. If you just throw the flour into the butter and walk away, you'll have...........well, you won't have a roux. Constant stirring is essential. Once your roux has formed, it should look like something between a thick slurry and a blob of lightly colored paste, depending on how much flour you used and how thick you want it to turn out. Now you're ready to add the milk and get your sauce going.
The best results come from using warm milk. The more anal among recipe writers will instruct you to “scald” your milk. Scalding involves heating the milk to around 180°. This used to be necessary in order to kill bacteria and to destroy enzymes that inhibited thickening. These days, unless you're getting your milk direct from the cow instead of the refrigerator, it's pasteurized and you don't need to do that anymore. Just stick it in the microwave for about a minute. Or warm it in a pan on the stove. Cold milk straight from the fridge might cause your sauce to “break.” In non-kitchen terms, that means it'll separate. There are ways to fix a broken sauce, but it's easier to do it right the first time. Cold milk also tends to form lumps.
Add the warm milk a little at a time and whisk or stir until it combines smoothly with the roux. If you dump it all in at once, you'll get lumps. If you use too much milk, you'll get a runny sauce. If you don't use enough, you'll get wallpaper paste. See why it's so easy to screw this up? And keep stirring! At first, you're going to look at the mess you're creating and say, “Oh my stars! (Or words to that effect.) This looks terrible! I must be doing something wrong.” Patience, grasshopper. Keep adding and stirring. It'll all magically come together and you'll really impress yourself.
Once you get a smooth sauce of the desired consistency, keep stirring and bring it to a boil. Don't let it bubble vigorously. Once you see bubbles, drop the heat back and let the sauce simmer for another five or six minutes. Did I mention to keep stirring?
Remove the pan from the heat and taste the sauce for seasoning. Add salt as needed. Some folks like a little pepper in there. If you want to be really fancy and esthetically pleasing, use white pepper instead of black. Nutmeg, while not a necessity, does add a nice depth of flavor to the sauce.
If you're not going to use the sauce right away, that's okay. It'll hold until everything's ready. But press a piece of plastic wrap down onto the surface of the sauce to keep a skin from forming. I don't mean cover the pan with plastic. I mean put the plastic right on the sauce. Seriously. Don't hold it too long, though. If you keep the sauce on the stove over really low heat, you'll be okay for maybe thirty minutes. After that, the heat will start changing the flavor. You can refrigerate béchamel as long as you keep it well covered. When you're ready to use it, warm it up slowly, stirring frequently. Béchamel loves to be stirred and the longer you stir it, the smoother it gets.
If your sauce turns out too runny, don't try to reduce it. Reducing is a fancy kitchen term for cooking a sauce over medium heat in order to evaporate liquid and concentrate flavor. And it'll royally screw up a béchamel. Instead, employ another fancy French technique called a buerre manie. (It means “kneaded butter.”) Take equal amounts of cold butter and flour and mush them together to form a ball. Drop the ball into the warm sauce and eccolo! The butter melts, releasing the flour and its thickening starches without making a lumpy sauce. (“Eccolo!” is sort of the Italian equivalent of “voilà!” I just figured I'd used more than enough French words today.)
Conversely, if your sauce seems too thick, add small amounts of milk – remember to stir – until it thins out to where you want it. Just don't go overboard with the milk or you'll wind up with a great pan of warm milk for hot chocolate. You'll have to add more butter and flour and pretty soon you'll have a big vat of sauce when you only needed a cup. Or, of course, you can start all over.
It's really not as hard as it sounds and the benefits of a well-made béchamel are more than worth the effort. Practice and consistency are the keys. And did I mention stirring?