When it comes to knowing your way around a kitchen, nothing declares your pro status quite like being able to make delicious sauces.
Roasting veggies or creating a quick pasta dish is easy, but it takes real skill to create a yummy sauce to go with it. Or does it? If you’ve been itching to try your hand at sauces, especially béchamel, a little bit of confidence and patience may be your most important ingredients.
Béchamel, also sometimes called white sauce, is one of the five “great” or “mother” sauces all chefs learn, especially those studying traditional French cuisine. Although most likely French in origin, first appearing in Le Cuisinier Francois in the 1650’s, some legends state béchamel was created in Italy as far back as the 1300’s.
It only later entered French cookery when Catherine de Medici married the future king of France and brought her cooks along with her to the French court. Either way it’s been part of these countries’ cuisines for centuries now, so it’s also firmly entrenched in both food cultures.
Known in Italy as besciamella or balsamella, the basic recipe is simply hot milk whisked into a roux. A roux is equal parts butter and flour cooked over a gentle heat. A brown sauce begins the same way, except the roux is allowed to cook a little longer and take on a darker color. The roux in a béchamel isn’t cooked as long and therefore stays a creamy white.
The term béchamel is often used interchangeably with white sauce, since it is indeed a white sauce. However “white sauce” is a more generic term that also applies to béchamel’s variations and other sauces that happen to be white as well.
This sauce is thick enough to make your lasagna nice and gooey. It generally isn’t thin enough to be runny, although a thinner version (made with a little more milk) makes a nice base for a creamy soup.
Béchamel can be used in a variety of dishes, from traditional Italian lasagne to creamy macaroni and cheese. Historically recipes are quite a bit fancier, incorporating cream and eggs, frying root vegetables in the butter to add more flavor or adding seasonings like black pepper or nutmeg into the sauce itself.
Besciamella appears in a number of Italian recipes, usually acting as a luscious binding agent for pasta or vegetable dishes, as the main course or for sides. It’s also the base of a number of tasty variations.
Mornay sauce, for example, is simply a béchamel with cheese melted into it. Which means the next time you make homemade macaroni and cheese you can call it your Pasta a la Mornay.
The most notable use of besciamella may just be in classic lasagne, one of the oldest recipes in Italy’s rich culinary history. Thousands of years ago Greek chefs used laganon, one of the world’s earliest forms of pasta, to bake pastitsio – or Greek lasagna. It’s been a staple in the Mediterranean region, in one form or another, ever since.
Today most lasagna recipes we know use a tomato-based red sauce, so using a white sauce instead may seem jarring to most of us.
But northern Italian recipes like Lasagna alla Bolognese, from the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy, which home to many of the finest of Italian culinary traditions, have always called for besciamella in their lasagne. The result is something so rich and thick you may never use tomato sauce again.