Most people call it Bechamel: a simple white sauce made of butter, flour and milk. In Tuscany they call it descriptively salsa colla (glue sauce), or the Italianized term besciamella, or even balsamella, perhaps because of its balm or salve-like consistency. It got its most well-known name from Louis de Béchamel, who is said to have “invented” it in the 17th century at the court of King Louis XIV of France… but as much as the Italians love their “trans-alpine” cousins, they simply cannot bear the thought of anyone claiming that French cuisine is better, or more historic, than Italian cuisine. So this is what I’ve been told.
The Real History of Bechamel, According to the Tuscans
This simple “glue sauce” is documented in a 15th century book entitled La Cucina Medicea (The Cuisine of the Medici), two centuries before it was “invented” by Louis de Bèchamel in France. Food historians like Giuliano Bugialli contend that this glue sauce was introduced in France by none other than Catherine de’ Medici when she married Henry II, King of France (and later became the mother to 3 French kings). The story goes that, as perhaps only an Italian woman would do, instead of bringing scores of maids and personal attendants with her to the French court, she focused on bringing a veritable equipe of Tuscan chefs with her.
The French court was surprised by a number of innovations she insisted on at their table – like the use of forks and table cloths – and a number of traditional Tuscan dishes thus started to make their way into French cuisine. In addition to glue sauce, it seems the arrival of Catherine’s chefs also led to the introduction of onion soup (called carabaccia in Tuscany), orange duck (which was served at her wedding), crepes (called crespelle in Tuscany), macaroons, gelato, omelettes and marron glacé!
Enough on the history… let’s get to the recipe! Like all things simple, there are many variations to bechamel sauce. Here is a very light and versatile version:
BECHAMEL SAUCE – INGREDIENTS
- 2 tbs butter
- 1/4 c. flour – any kind*
- 750 ml (3 c.) milk
- nutmeg, salt & pepper
*I have a strong gluten intollerance – so you’ll find many of my recipes give gluten-free options. To make bechamel to use with lasagna (or any other dish where you want the sauce to be “delicate”, and not compete with other ingredients like ragù) I use rice flour. If you want a bolder version of Bechamel, to use with things like cooked greens or chicken, I like to use chickpea flour.
BECHAMEL SAUCE – INSTRUCTIONS
Have a whisk and wood spoon or spatula ready. In a heavy-bottomed pot, melt the butter, then add the flour, stiring briskly with the wood spoon. It will have a gummy texture – that’s ok. Move it around in the pot for a minute or two until it turns a light golden color.
Get your whisk ready. Take the pot of the burner, and slowly add the milk as you whisk furiously. This is the tricky part: you need to add enough milk so the mixture does not congeal, but you want to add the milk slow enough to gradually encorporate the flour-butter mixture into the milk. This is the key to avoiding lumps. But should lumps form (and they often do for me), it’s nothing a strong whisking can’t fix. ( I was just reading this recipe aloud to my mom and she thought I said that lumps aren’t anything a “strong whiskey” can’t fix! So I thought to myself if the cook has enough whiskey, lumps won’t matter much!)
Once you’ve added all the milk, put the pot on low heat, stir regularly with your wood spoon, and make sure to catch the bottom of the pot too. By regularly I mean at least every minute. As the sauce thickens you can add the salt and pepper to taste, together with a little freshly-grated nutmeg (exactly how much depends on taste, but definitely no more than 1/4 tsp unless your nutmeg is really old=tasteless). Cook on low, stiring regularly, for about 15 minutes, or until you reach the desired thickness.
The desired thickness depends on what you are making with the sauce. For something that will be baked for at least 20 minutes like lasagna, you don’t want it too thick, but thick enough to coat a spoon. For dishes that will be quickly passed under the broiler like crepes, you want it on the thick side, so it takes a second or two for it to fall off a sideways spoon. Also consider that as beschamel cools, it will thicken further.
Suggested uses: well, lasagna (duh!), baked canneloni (instead of cheese on top), stuffed crespelle (crepes), or mixed with just about any previously chopped & cooked vegetable on earth and baked with breadcrumbs and a drizzle of olive oil on top to make a sformato; my favorites are made with green beans, or cooked greens (chard, kale etc), zucchini, fennel, artichokes, asparagus… it’s easier than pie and so much healthier than your average casserole.