A culinary tradition that is shared by France and Italy is Sauce Béchamel – as it’s known in French, or Salsa Balsamella – as it’s known in Italian (also as Besciamella or Bechimella). The sauce has been used in both countries for centuries and the respective recipes are virtually identical.
The sauce functions as a binding element in countless dishes from all over Italy: most notably in lasagne and cannelloni — but also in various gratins of vegetables, as well as a pasticcio (a “mess” or scramble of cheese and vegetables, meat, or cooked pasta, sometimes with a pastry crust), and timballi (baked pasta, rice or potatoes with cheese, meat and/or potatoes).
Balsamella is ubiquitous in Italian cooking, so it should be mastered. But not to worry; it’s simple. Here’s how:
- 2 cups milk
- 4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter
- 3 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- Heat the milk in a small saucepan on medium-low, bringing it just to the boiling point, when it begins to form small bubbles.
- While the milk is heating, melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Blend in the flour and then stir constantly for about 2 minutes without allowing the mixture to color. At this point you have what the French call roux.
- Remove from the heat and once the roux has stopped bubbling, add the hot milk, very slowly at first, allowing each small addition of milk to become incorporated before adding more. Continue to add the milk while vigorously whisking until the mixture is smooth.
- Return the pan to the stove and warm the mixture over medium-low heat, whisking without interruption while adding the salt (the French add pepper, the Italians do not).
- Continue whisking until the sauce thickens to the recipe’s direction, usually to the consistency of heavy cream.
Tips for Success:
- If possible, use a heavy-bottomed enameled, porcelain, Pyrex, stainless steel, or tin-lined copper saucepan. A thin-bottomed pan can scorch the sauce and aluminum can discolor it. Also, choose a shallow pan over a taller one: the sauce will perform better if it cooks quickly using more burner area.
- Although many insist this sauce only be made using a double boiler, I’ve never had trouble making it directly on the stovetop.
- The sauce is best used in dishes while it’s still warm. You can make it a day in advance and refrigerate it in an airtight container. Slowly re-warm the sauce using a double boiler until it takes on a spreadable consistency.
- If a film forms on the top while you’re focused on the recipe of which this sauce is a component, whisk it briskly.
- Never allow the flour to brown, as it will acquire a pungent and bitter burnt flavor.
- Although Julia Child, in her book Mastering the Art of French Cooking, recommends pouring in the milk all at once, I have had better luck adding a little at a time, as described above, to prevent lumps.
- Never stop whisking!
- To make the sauce thicker, cook and whisk a little longer; for a thinner sauce, a little less.
- If you get lumps, smash them out with a wooden spoon or whisk – or you can use an electric hand blender, or force it through a sieve.
- If the sauce becomes too thick, thin it out with milk, added a little at a time.
- If the sauce is too thin (even after cooking down), add equal parts butter and flour until you reach the desired consistentcy.
- This recipe can be doubled or tripled, but if you’re going to make more than that, use two pans.