This is the time of year when everyone seems to be on a diet, but it also happens to be freezing outside and carrot sticks just don’t cut it. We want comfort food and one sauce that features in some delicious comfort food is béchamel. Now béchamel is not exactly low in calories, but when it is time for an indulgence, it’s nice to be able to whip up this classic sauce, enjoyed by the Medicis and the courts of Louis XIV, in only a few minutes.
Béchamel sauce, though it has high falutin’ origins is one of the most basic of sauces, is incredibly versatile and is one of the easiest sauces to make. Regarded as one of the five “mother” sauces by Auguste Escoffier, this delicious, simple white sauce has been around for centuries, developed in Tuscany and introduced to France in the sixteenth century when Marie de Medici married Henry IV. At that time, this aristocratic sauce was known as Balsamella, and was subsequently renamed in honour of the French financier and patron of the arts, Louis de Bechamiel, who later became King Louis XIV’s head steward, and is said to have perfected the sauce.
Béchamel is a white sauce that is made from a roux and has warmed milk added to it. Butter is melted over medium heat and an equal amount of flour is whisked in until a smooth paste results, taking care not to overcook or brown the roux. Then the warmed milk is added and whisked together with the roux making a creamy, medium thick but satiny smooth sauce. Depending on the recipe the béchamel will be used for, you can make it thin, medium or thick by increasing the amounts of butter and flour for your roux; 1-2 tablespoons of flour and butter per cup of milk will make a nice, pourable sauce, while 3 tablespoons of each gives you a thick sauce like one that would be used in making a soufflé.
There are minor variations in the aromatics department; sometimes chefs call for a little onion to be minced and cooked with the butter and flour, (often referred to as a soubise), some chefs call for an onion pierced with a clove or two to be steeped with the milk, then strained before adding to the roux, while others opt for bay leaf, or a clove of garlic, or a pinch of salt, white pepper, and or nutmeg.
Once you have your béchamel there are dozens of uses for it and numerous ways to jazz it up by making “daughter” or “secondary sauces. Nantua sauce, the classic seafood sauce is made by adding cream and crayfish butter to béchamel. Adding grated cheese such as gruyere, emmental and parmesan to béchamel make it Mornay sauce for dishes like Lobster Mornay, or grating in cheddar cheese and whisking it up will give you an amazing cheese sauce suitable for mac & cheese or as a sure fire way to get finicky kids to polish off their broccoli.
Béchamel that has eggs slowly whisked into it with feta cheese makes the traditional custard topping for Greek dishes like moussaka and pastitsio, and béchamel is also an important component of lasagna, croques monsieur, creamed onions and is indispensable when making chicken pot pies or creamed salmon.
Milk, flour and butter are three of the most basic ingredients in the kitchen, but when mixed together in the right way they become this incredible luxurious sauce. Make some today!
Laura Calder’s recipe for Bechamel (from French Chef at Home)
250 ml (1 cup) milk
1 Bay leaf
1 garlic clove
1.5 tablespoons butter
1.5 tablespoons flour
salt & pepper
Steep the milk with the garlic and a bay leaf for 15 minutes.
Melt the butter in a saucepan. Whisk in the flour and cook for a minute. Gradually whisk in the milk. Cook, stirring constantly, until thick. Remove the garlic clove and bay leaf, then season to taste. For a thick béchamel use ratio of 2 tablespoons butter + 2 tablespoons flour for 1 cup/250 ml milk.