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Béchamel sauce, also called white sauce, is an ancient European sauce, at least 300 years old. It frequently forms the base for other sauces, and is called by the French a mere or mother sauce. You could not have cream sauce, most cheese sauces or the ever-popular fondue without béchamel.
Béchamel sauce results from adding milk to a roux, a combination of butter and flour. Other ingredients may then be added in order to create other sauces. Melted cheese or mustard are common additions to create creamy sauces that may top cooked meats, vegetables, or pasta. When cream instead of milk is added, béchamel sauce is often called cream sauce.
It’s challenging to claim exactly when béchamel sauce was first made. Chefs who worked for the nobility and had access to ways to store milk without it souring likely made the first versions. Naturally, a dairy farmer could make this sauce out of fresh milk, but the average peasant wife was rather leery of using milk that wasn’t fresh in recipes, since it so frequently spoiled.
Claims of who invented béchamel sauce usually come down to four theories. The first is that chefs of Catherine de Medici invented the sauce in the 14th century. Alternately, Duke de Phillipe Mornay created the sauce in the early 17th century. Others suggest the sauce was created for Louis XIV by his chief steward, Marquis Louis de Béchamel.
The most likely theory is that this sauce was created for Louis XIV by his personal chef, Pierre de la Varenne. La Varenne is certainly the first to write the recipe down in his cookbook Le Cuisinier Francois translated as The True French Cook. La Varenne’s book was written in the 17th century, so we can date béchamel sauce back to about 1680.
There are a few keys to making a béchamel sauce. The first begins with carefully watching the roux, the mix of flour and butter, so that it does not burn. Unless you are making Cajun food, you want the roux to remain relatively yellow or light brown, but never dark brown. Recipes differ greatly on the butter to flour ratio. Many advocate equal parts butter and flour.
When you add milk to the sauce, you should be sure the milk is at room temperature or slightly warmed. Adding cold milk can “break” the sauce resulting in a lumpy instead of creamy finish. Milk should be added a few drops at a time and incorporated by whisking constantly. Overcooking can also ruin this sauce. Keep whisking and keep a careful eye on thickness. Once it reaches the thickness desired, remove it from the heat.
If you want to keep your white sauce “white,” use white instead of black pepper. Some chefs also like to use a bit of scallions or onion, which is mixed in with the heating milk. Others use a bouquet garni, a small bundle of herbs while heating the milk. These are removed prior to adding the milk to the roux, but have flavored the milk with their essential oils.