The history of Sauce Béchamel is a knotty one of subterfuge and false claims, heavy stuff for a sauce made with four simple ingredients. It begs a question: does this matter? There is only one answer.
YES! Because what would French cuisine be without mystery and intrigue? It is this, along with a long codified history of building flavor from the finest local and seasonal ingredients, which makes French cuisine the most enduring, the most copied, the most revered in the world.
Back to béchamel. This mother sauce, cornerstone, foundational element of French cuisine goes back to the 17th century, and is attributed to one of King Louis XIV’s maîtres d’hôtel, a certain M. Louis de Béchameil. He was a gentleman farmer and marquis from the region of l’Oise, just 30 kilometers north of Paris. Marquis de Béchameil, who could raise an army in minutes to defend his king if necessary, preferred to cook. As legend has it, he presented the king with a cream sauce based on stock and shallots and thickened with flour, and never looked back. The king was enchanted, immediately appointed the Marquis to be a head of his kitchens, and insisted on eating this sauce regularly. Of course, it took on the name of the Marquis, and became Sauce Béchamel.
The intrigue continues. It seems the ambitious marquis copied his sauce from a certain culinary genius named François Pierre de la Varenne, who created what is considered the most influential French cookbook ever written, Le Cuisinier François. Through his recipes, Mr. la Varenne moved French cuisine away from the heavily spiced cuisine of the Middle Ages into one based on seasonal ingredients and finesse. Did Louis XIV ever find out? Does it matter? And who replaced the stock with milk? These are questions which may never be answered….
But what we are certain of is that the béchamel is a foundational sauce. It is the gentle magic of Croque Monsieur, Bouchée à la Reine (puff pastry filled with a savory blend of sweetbreads and béchamel), Endives with Ham and so much more. It is almost, but not always, flavored with nutmeg; and it is made with equal parts butter and flour. And here the sauce takes on its personality, depending on the amount of milk which is added. Follow the recipe below, and you’ll have the world’s best béchamel, ready to use in minutes. The secret? Read the ingredients, you will see.
Béchamel stands on its own, but it is also the base of other sauces: add an egg yolk and some cheese and you have a Sauce Mornay; add some butter blended with the juices of crawfish and you get a Sauce Nantua; add some fish stock and a bit of truffle and you get Sauce Cardinale…and if you want to make a béchamel a roux, let the butter and flour mixture turn deep golden before adding the milk and voila!
A béchamel is a necessity in anyone’s repertoire. The one here is the best ever, because it is creamy, not too thick, richly flavored with butter. Use it anywhere a béchamel is called for, particularly the next Croque Monsieur you decide to make. But don’t stop there, for it will step up your favorite macaroni and cheese, lasagna, biscuits and gravy or, why not? Your next Bouchée a la Reine!
BECHAMEL SAUCE - SAUCE BECHAMEL
- 3-1/2 cups;880ml whole milk
- 1 bay leaf from the Laurus nobilis
- 8 tablespoons;125g unsalted butter
- 1/2 cup;70g all-purpose flour
- Fine sea salt to taste
- Pour the milk into a medium-size saucepan. Add the bay leaf and set the pan over medium heat. Scald the milk, remove it from the heat and keep it warm.
- Melt the butter in another medium-size saucepan over medium heat until completely melted. Whisk in the flour and let the mixture foam and cook, whisking occasionally, for at least 2 minutes. Whisk in the hot milk with the bay leaf and cook, whisking regularly, until the sauce thickens, about 5 minutes. If the sauce isn’t thickening, increase the heat slightly, and whisk occasionally.
- Season the béchamel to taste, and remove from the heat. The sauce is ready to use immediately.