Alright, enough screwing around – Back to the Escoffier version of the French Mother Sauces, as asked for and promised! We covered velouté, so it’s time for béchamel, (and down the line, espagnole, tomate, and hollandaise).
Béchamel is arguably the most versatile of those magic five, (although tomate might dispute that claim). So many derivatives come from it. Béchamel is a cream sauce, with a heart of roux, the combination of flour and fat that gives its richness to all variants. As much as it may pain French cuisine to say so, béchamel’s roots are predominantly Italian. In that country, besciamella, (or balsamella, or bechimella), have been around for hundreds of years prior to their cropping up in French cooking. In everything from pasta primavera to lasagna and cannelloni, besciamella has been used to tie many an Italian dish into a coherent whole. The secret weapon to those Italian cream sauces? A dusting of fresh ground nutmeg – Not enough of the latter to taste like nutmeg – rather just enough to hint at something exotic. Béchamel variants are found literally everywhere, but those roots run deepest in the heart of Europe.
Béchamel in its French incarnation first appeared in print in the mid seventeenth century, within François Pierre La Varenne eponymous work, Le Cuisinier François, the bible of early French haute cuisine, (that tome was so popular that it enjoyed some thirty editions, over three quarters of a century). That first sauce, named after the Chief Steward to King Louis XIV, was a veal based velouté with a copious amount of fresh cream added. The essence of béchamel is simplicity itself – butter, flour, milk, salt, and white pepper – That’s it.
From béchamel comes many famous derivatives. There’s mornay, with cheese added, and mushroom. There’s crème sauce, with cream replacing milk. Nantua adds an essence of shellfish, mustard seed in mustard sauce, and soubise, which adds minced onion. And of course, the basic sauce itself can be varied widely merely by altering the ratio of roux to milk – from a relatively thin and easily poured sauce containing one tablespoon each of butter and flour to one cup of milk, right up to three tablespoons of each roux constituent, which will yield a very thick sauce, indeed.
Really though, the sky is the limit. Have some lovely fresh herbs in your garden? Add a few whole leaves of basil, or sage, a stem of rosemary, or thyme – That silky net of gently simmered dairy fat will embrace and enhance whatever you add. Smoked salmon, kalamata olives, capers, fresh lemon juice and zest – one or two, maybe three such things are all you need to make exquisite sauce.
One important caveat, though – Something as simple as béchamel demands good, fresh ingredients. Old, low quality, or past their prime constituents will tube a béchamel faster than anything. On the contrary, fresh butter, flour, and milk will sing a far more complex tune than their simple roots might suggest.
How you make a béchamel is, for my mind, easily as important as what you make it with. This isn’t a sauce to just be dumped in a pan and heated. There are steps and rules, if great results are what you expect. For my mind, there are four guidelines you simply must follow.
1. Cook the roux first, and make sure that it remains a white roux – This means medium low heat, constant whisking, and paying close attention to the look and smell of the roux as it cooks. There’s nothing wrong with darker roux, many things demand the nuttier, more intense flavors they bring – But classic béchamel is a white sauce and should stay that way. Consider also this – the lighter the roux, the greater it’s thickening power – it takes considerably more of a dark roux to thicken an equal amount of whoever you’re working with.
2. The milk must be scalded prior to adding it to the roux – This is critical to a smooth, homogeneous sauce, and to fully integrating the milk without breaking the roux.
3. Don’t break the roux – the roux should be heated through and starting to bubble a bit before milk is gradually added. Rather than dumping a cup of milk in all at once, you need to slowly add a little milk and stir it into the roux – allow that to heat through and start to bubble, then add a little more milk and repeat – Doing this controls the splitting of starch chains and the forming of new bonds as the sauce is heated and milk is slowly introduced. The breaking of those starch chains means that the starch molecules don’t thicken as effectively, but by the same token, they’re less likely to reconnect to each other, which will leave a nasty, congealed mess instead of a lovely sauce. Think of it as if the milk is stretching a net of fat and starch – You want that net to hold a lot of liquid, not break and lose it – n’est pas? Take a look at the pics in this post on mac and cheese and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about.
4. Cook the sauce long enough to achieve a slightly less thicker final product than you want, then do whatever you’re going to do with it. Chances are good that might involve more cooking, so don’t overdo it in the formative phase of things – That sauce will continue to thicken if it’s made into mac and cheese, lasagna, or stroganoff.
Classic Béchamel Sauce
1 Cup Whole Milk
2 Tablespoons Unsalted Butter
2 Tablespoons All Purpose Flour
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/4 teaspoon ground White Pepper
1 or two grates of fresh Nutmeg
In a heavy sauce pan over medium high heat, add the milk. Watch the milk closely and whisk occasionally, until tiny bubbles form around the edge of the pan where it meets the milk. Remove from heat and set aside.
In a heavy sauce pan, add the butter and melt thoroughly.
Add the flour and whisk to incorporate. Cook while gently but constantly whisking, until the blend has stiffened up a bit, (this is caused by some of the moisture from the butter being driven out of the mix). This will take about 2 to 3 minutes or so.
Drizzle about a quarter cup of hot milk into the roux, and whisk steadily. The results will look like mashed potatoes. Whisk gently but constantly, until the heat of cooking causes the mix to bubble.
Add another quarter cup of milk, whisking gently but steadily, and allow it to heat completely through before adding more milk. Repeat with the he remaining half cup of milk.
Add the salt and pepper, taste, and adjust seasoning as desired. NOTE: If you’re adding herbs, proteins, etc, this is the time to thrown them in there.
Reduce the heat to low and continue cooking for up to 5 minutes. Stop when your sauce is a bit less thick than you want it. Remove from heat and do what you’re gonna do.
So, what are ya gonna do with that?
There’s Mac and Cheese, of course
And Beef Stroganoff,
How about Pasta Primavera, with whatever fresh veggies float your boat saluted in a little olive oil and butter, and angel hair pasta, thrown into a sauté pan with your sauce, tossed to coat and incorporate, and served with crusty bread and a fresh, green salad?
The rest of that journey is yours to take.