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.