Béchamel sauce, also called white sauce, is a European sauce that is 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. When milk is added to the roux and cooked for a few
minutes, it becomes béchamel sauce. 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.
No one actually knows when the first béchamel sauce was made, but 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 béchamel 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 tale is that the chefs of Catherine de Medici invented the sauce in 14th
century Italy. Alternately, Duke de Phillipe Mornay created the sauce in the early 17th
century in France. Others suggest the sauce was created for Louis XIV by his chief
steward, Marquis Louis de Béchamel.
Pierre de la Varenne who was 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 béchamel 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 a béchamel sauce. Keep
whisking and keep a careful eye on thickness. Once it reaches the thickness desired,
remove it from the heat.