Béchamel sauce is a silky white sauce made from milk and thickened with butter and flour. It is one of the five mother sauces used in French cuisine, meaning it is a base used for other, more complex sauces such as Mornay or Alfredo. Béchamel sauce is a staple in many Italian and French dishes, including lasagne, gratin, and croque monsieur. While it has been popularised in French cuisine, béchamel sauce is attributed to an Italian origin, from the regions of Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna. In Italian, the sauce is referred to as balsamel or beschiamella.
History of béchamel sauce
Béchamel sauce has its beginnings in Tuscany during the renaissance era, when it was referred to as the ‘glue sauce’ thanks to its sticky, thick consistency. The creamy white sauce was introduced to France in 1533 by the chefs of Catherina de Medici (wife of Henry II). It is so named after Louis de Béchamel, chief steward to King Louis XIV in France. While often featured in Italian cookbooks of the renaissance period (as the glue sauce – salsa colla), it was renamed in 1651 when published in the cookbook Le Cuisinier Francois, considered to be a foundation of French cuisine.
How do you make béchamel sauce?
Béchamel sauce today is simply made by cooking a roux of butter and flour, which is used to thicken the sauce. Warm, full-cream milk is then added to this mixture and whisked into the sauce. While béchamel sauce is creamy and rich, cream is rarely used in the recipes. The traditional recipes from early cookbooks are much more complex, however.
In a 1700s traditional recipe, béchamel sauce was made by cooking onion skins and root vegetable peels in butter, later adding spring onion and parsley to the mixture. Once cooked, cream is then added to the vegetables and seasoned with black pepper, salt, and nutmeg. This was then boiled and strained, with more butter added to the final sauce.
A more modern recipe – also described in a 1700s cookbook – outlines first melting butter and then frying shallots with parsley and spring onion. Later, cream is added along with the seasonings as well as extra parsley, and the sauce is served as is without straining. In Provence, béchamel sauce is made using olive oil instead of butter.
What sauces can you make from?
With béchamel sauce as a base, you can make a number of other derivatives, including:
- Mornay – A rich sauce with added grated cheese and egg yolk.
- Aurora – A creamy sauce made by mixing béchamel with tomato sauce.
- Soubisse – A French sauce made by mixing sautéed onions with béchamel.
- Parsley – A classic English sauce made by mixing béchamel with parsley and lemon juice.
- Nantua – A seafood sauce made by mixing béchamel with cream and crayfish butter & meat.