Italian Béchamel Sauce

by Lael Hazan on January 31, 2011

January 10th was national milk day, and we thought we would honor the day by posting a recipe for béchamel, or balsamella as it is called in Italian.  Known as the “mother” sauce in French cooking it is also used in many Italian baked dishes and gratinées, and is a necessity in meat lasgane.  It is never used alone, and Italian béchamel doesn’t have the clove that is considered the staple of the recipe by French authority Escoffier.

There is a theory that the famous white sauce was brought to France by the great chefs of Italian born, Queen Catherine de Medici.  In Italian lore, all the good food that France has is due to her.  According to many, she even introduced the fork to France.  Although its origins may be somewhat mysterious, béchamel is a sauce that was certainly used mostly by royalty as the rest of the populace didn’t get refrigeration for their kitchens and couldn’t afford ice until a bit over 100 years ago.

Traditionally made béchamel is created by whisking hot milk into a flour and butter roux.  A roux is made of equal parts butter that has been clarified and flour.  A roux is often called a brown sauce.  Italian béchamel uses whole butter and the roux is not allowed to brown.

The creamy, rich white sauce is easy to make but requires a bit of patience.  Don’t worry if it doesn’t thicken right away, it will eventually so don’t panic and add more flour.

Bechamél (Balsamella)

Total time from start to finish:  20 minutes

Makes about 2 1/2 cups

2 cups whole milk

4 tablespoons butter

4 tablespoons flour

Salt

1. Pour the milk in a small saucepan and place over medium heat.  Heat until steam is released when the milk is stirred, just before it boils.

2.  While the milk is heating, melt the butter in a 2-quart saucepan over medium low heat.  Add the flour, mixing it in with a wire whisk until the mixture is smooth.  Cook, whisking constantly, for about a minute.  Do not brown.  Remove from the heat.

3.  When the milk is hot, transfer it to a measuring cup or pitcher with a spout.  Return the pan with the flour mixture to medium heat and begin adding the hot milk, very slowly at first, mixing with the whisk.  Do not be concerned if the mixture becomes quite thick at first.  Continue adding the milk slowly while mixing with the whisk.  As the consistency becomes thinner, start adding the milk more rapidly until all of it has been mixed in.

4.  Season with salt and cook over medium heat, whisking constantly until the sauce begins to thicken, about 15 minutes.  The sauce is done when it coats the whisk thickly.  Béchamel is best when used the same day but will keep overnight in the refrigerator if necessary.  It’s not necessary to reheat before using.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Lora @cakeduchess February 5, 2011 at 10:13 pm

Making béchamel can be tricky. I did add more flour the first time wondering why it was not thickening!This is a great recipe for one of my favorite sauces:)Bravi!

Lynne February 5, 2011 at 8:22 am

Perfect bechamel! Some bechamel recipes are totally off in the proportions, but this one is just right.

Tina (Tangerine Tea) February 4, 2011 at 4:19 pm

The version you wrote here is basically how I make bechamel sauce myself. But I was wondering how to add a little more flavour, so I’m glad you mentioned the bit about cloves. I’m going to try that the next time. Love cloves!!

Quay Po Cooks February 4, 2011 at 6:06 am

What an interesting story behind the sauce. Bechamel sauce is so versatile, I love working with it.

deeba February 4, 2011 at 4:25 am

My fave sauce. I loved the post. Such a great read. Bookmarked!!

Nisrine M February 3, 2011 at 5:26 pm

Lael, it’s so good to learn about balsamella. The ingredients sound very similar to those of French bechamel. Interesting story behind it as well!

Anna Johnston February 3, 2011 at 4:16 pm

I didn’t know that Queen Catherine de Medici’s chefs brought Béchamel to Italy…, it’s so interesting to read that! French sauces have made their way into just about every culture…, so rich ‘n yummy. Nothing like a truly good béchamel in Italian cuisine though is there.

Luigi vigna December 2, 2011 at 2:23 pm

My dear you have it wrong. Bechamel sauce was brought TO France from Italy, not the other way around!.. Just wanted to make sure you had the correct facts!! :)

Giuliano Hazan December 2, 2011 at 3:00 pm

Yes, of course it was, as we wrote in our post: “the famous white sauce was brought to France by the great chefs of Italian born Queen Catherine de Medici”.

Krista February 3, 2011 at 11:19 am

Thank you so much for visiting my blog today! :-) I love that you and your children made chocolate cake for breakfast. That’s such a great memory for them! :-) Thank you for clarifying the difference between Italian and French bechamel. I love the whole butter version myself. :-)

Meeta February 3, 2011 at 2:52 am

Bechamel sauce is the perfect basis to such wonderful experimentation. In German cuisine it is often used for a variety of dishes. My mother-in-law usually adds a pinch of nutmeg to hers! Lovely!

Sandra@Sandra's Easy Cooking February 3, 2011 at 12:00 am

I love how you made it! Looks wonderful and I could eat it with any good pasta! Thank you for sharing!

Soma February 2, 2011 at 5:43 pm

I love my pasta or baked vegetables with the bechamel sauce! Lovely.

Sylvie @ Gourmande in the Kitchen February 2, 2011 at 7:29 am

A bechamel is one of those basic sauces that everyone really should know how to make. I remember my mother always putting a bit of nutmeg in hers.

Jeanne @ CookSister February 1, 2011 at 9:07 am

When I left my husband behind in London to go and live in South Africa again for 18 months, I left him a list of store cupboard essentials that I thought he should never be without; and instructions how to make only one thing: bechamel sauce. I figured if he could make that, he could make a base for a creamy pasta and a sauce to accompany any sort of grilled meat or fish. I’d never really pondered the distinction between bechamel sauce and a roux – thanks for the informative post!

Jamie February 1, 2011 at 9:01 am

Actually although to me a roux is white and basically just the butter + flour + liquid sauce thickener it does make sense that “roux” is brown since it actually means “red”. And yes, even in France Italy is recognized as the source of much of her culinary heritage. And even the fork (I remember reading in Les Rois Maudits, an historical novel that Louis X, I think, gave his new bride a fork as a gift and she thought he was crazy and frivolous!) I love bechamel and its uses are too many to count!

Annapet January 31, 2011 at 4:08 pm

All smiles that the first ever thing my aunt taught me to make is BECHAMEL, and even in Manila (a lifetime ago) we had always made our meat sauce lasagna with bechamel.

Thank you for sharing!

SMITH BITES January 31, 2011 at 1:43 pm

Am so happy to read that you use this bechamel in meat sauce lasagna – too many recipes rely on the red sauce alone and I think it’s better with the addition of the bechamel! perfecto!

Mardi@eatlivetravelwrite January 31, 2011 at 8:33 am

Bechamel is one of my favourite sauces and I am intrigued by this one. As Rosa says, this has so many uses – bookmarked!

Rosa January 31, 2011 at 7:19 am

I love bechamel. There are so many delicious Italian dishes that contain this wonderful sauce… Very useful.

Cheers,

Rosa

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