First things first: thank you for making my blog launch day so memorable! I truly enjoyed reading your comments, tweets, texts, and Facebook posts. Thank you!
During the next few months, I’m planning on posting several recipes that will be tagged “basics”. I decided to break them out into separate posts in order to give you more specific guidance on how to learn them since they are recipes that are used repeatedly in Italian cooking. Today, we are starting with one of my favorite basic recipes: béchamel sauce. As you can see from the name, the origin of this sauce is French and is believed to have been invented by Auguste Escoffier. Italians call this sauce balsamella or besciamella, and it’s a component in dishes such as lasagne, pasticcio, crocchette (croquettes), timballo, baked pasta, and gratinata (gratin).
Béchamel sauce is one of the five French “mother sauces”. The others are: velouté, éspagnol, hollandaise, and mayonnaise (or sauce tomat, depending on who you ask). These sauces are still taught today in culinary school as they are considered foundational recipes, but they are just as easily found being made in home kitchens. I use béchamel sauce to make my lasagne bolognese, baked pasta, and vegetable gratinata. Basically, béchamel sauce serves to add moisture and richness to a dish, while also binding the components of a dish together.
Over the years, I learned how to make béchamel sauce through trial and error, following a variety of recipes from several cookbooks, until I landed on Marcella Hazan’s recipe, which gave me the best results. The sauce starts with a simple roux made of butter and flour and cooked for a couple of minutes to cook out the raw taste of the flour. Scalded milk is gradually added and the sauce is stirred constantly until it has thickened. Seasonings are then added and the sauce is used immediately in the recipe which calls for it.
It’s important to keep in mind that béchamel sauce can’t be rushed. While it doesn’t take a very long time to make, the entire cooking process happens over a very low flame so as not to scorch any of the ingredients. I’ve found that it helps to have the butter at room temperature before adding it to the pot to melt. I also can’t stress enough that the best béchamel sauce is made using whole milk, or at the very least, 2%–it’s not meant to be low-fat. Lastly, I love to add a few scrapes of freshly grated nutmeg to the finished sauce–it adds an earthy, warm flavor that is barely noticeable and more of an essence than a perceptible flavor.
Adapted from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan
Béchamel sauce is best used immediately after it is finished cooking, so keep this in mind when making a recipe that calls for it.
2 cups whole milk
4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon salt
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg (optional)
Pour the milk into a small saucepan and heat it over medium-low heat. You want to barely scald the milk, not bring it to a boil. You will know it’s scalded when you see a ring of tiny bubbles beginning to form along the perimeter. Turn off the heat and set it aside.
Heat a heavy-bottom pot over medium-low heat. Add in the butter and let it melt slowly. Once the butter has melted completely, sprinkle in the flour and begin whisking to incorporate the flour into the butter, making sure to whisk out any lumps that form. Whisk the mixture constantly for about 2 minutes. Do not allow the flour to brown–the mixture should always remain a blonde color. Monitor the heat to make sure the mixture does not scorch.
Reduce the heat to low and gradually add in the warm milk, whisking constantly. Continue whisking after all the milk has been added to keep any lumps from forming. Monitor the heat to make sure the sauce does not boil. Once the sauce has thickened, turn off the heat. You will know the sauce is finished when you can run your finger down the back of a wooden spoon coated with the sauce, and the sauce does not fill in the gap. Add in the salt and nutmeg (if using), and stir to incorporate the ingredients into the sauce. Use immediately as directed in the recipe that requires béchamel sauce.