A true classic of French gastronomy, Béchamel sauce can be used to prepare many dishes. This delicious and creamy white sauce is made rather quickly, using very basic ingredients.
What is Béchamel sauce?
Bechamel sauce is a typically French white sauce, made from a mixture of flour and butter (in equal quantity) which is called a roux.
The roux is first heated gently in a saucepan, before milk is added. Milk will bind everything together and give a very creamy sauce.
Traditionally, béchamel is seasoned with salt, pepper and a hint of grated nutmeg.
What is the origin of béchamel sauce?
To better understand the history of the famous white sauce, let’s go back in time to 17th century France.
The béchamel takes its name from Louis de Béchameil, at the time King Louis XIV’s head steward. The king then had a reputation of a gourmet and was known for his excessive feasts. One evening, Béchameil, who also cooked from time to time, served him a new sauce of his own, made from gravy and shallots.
Strengthened by its success, its popularity grew and it started to be known under the name of Béchameil sauce, before becoming simply béchamelle and finally béchamel. Over time, the sauce changed and the milk gradually replaced the meat juice.
Some historians claim, however, that Louis de Béchameil is not the real inventor of the sauce, and would only have revisited it. Indeed, the latter would in reality be inspired by an already existing recipe based on cream, created by Pierre de La Varenne, the cook of the Marquis of Uxelles. The sauce recipe is also part of his book Le Cuisinier français, published in 1651.
In addition, La Varenne would have adapted this sauce based on a recipe brought back from Italy by Catherine de Médicis, as she was passing through the castle of Uxelles.
Even today, the mystery remains, although all the credit goes to Louis de Béchameil who remains the one who gave his surname to the sauce.
What dishes use Béchamel sauce?
Béchamel is used as a binder and base for many traditional European dishes. It is appreciated for its rich and creamy texture, bringing a lot of smoothness to dishes.
It is indeed an essential ingredient in the recipe for Italian lasagna, or even the croque-monsieur, a French sandwich with ham and cheese.
Moussaka, a Mediterranean dish popular in the Balkans and the Middle East, also contains béchamel. It covers several layers of minced meat and cooked eggplant.
Finally, béchamel sauce is often used to make all kinds of oven casseroles and various gratins of vegetables, pasta and rice.
Variants of Béchamel sauce
In addition to the dishes, the béchamel also serves as a base for creating various other sauces.
Mornay sauce, for example, is a cheese variant, sometimes also including egg yolk. Hard cheese is generally used, such as Gruyère or Emmental. This sauce is eaten with eggs or in a vegetable gratin, to make it even more delicious.
Aurora sauce, on the other hand, is simply a béchamel to which tomato paste is added.
On a more sophisticated note, there is also the cardinal sauce, perfect for accompanying fish. The latter consists of a base of béchamel sauce, then flavored with a fish stock (often anchovy), truffles and lobster butter.
Finally, just like béchamel, the Dieppe sauce is made from a white roux. Instead of milk, however, white wine, mussel juice, shrimp and crème fraîche are added.
- 4 cups milk
- 5 tablespoons butter
- ½ cup flour
- ¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- In a saucepan, melt the butter over low heat. Once the butter is melted, add the flour and mix to combine the two ingredients.
- After a few minutes, the flour and the butter thus mixed form a roux which begins to color. Do not wait for the mixture to scorch.
- Remove from the heat as soon as the preparation reaches a golden color, then let cool.
- While the roux cools down, bring the milk to a boil in a non-stick pan.
- Pour the milk over the roux gradually, and whisk vigorously to prevent the formation of lumps.
- If necessary, use a food processor.
- When the hot milk is completely poured over the roux, place the pan back on a low heat.
- Mix continuously with a whisk, until reaching a thicker consistency. The sauce should coat the back of a wooden spoon.
- Season with salt and pepper and add the freshly grated nutmeg.
You can add an aromatic garnish such as parsley, thyme, bay leaf, rosemary, shallot, black pepper, garlic, etc.