What Is a Gratinata Sauce?

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Gratin comes from the French for grating, as in the cheese that is shredded atop a gratinata dish.
Gratin comes from the French for grating, as in the cheese that is shredded atop a gratinata dish. (Image: Eising/Photodisc/Getty Images)

Butter adds a luxurious depth of flavor to dishes of all kinds, and is the workhorse of many sauces, including the béchamel sauce used for a gratinata. A béchamel is a classic French sauce made by adding dairy to a roux of butter and flour. This sauce is not just specific to a gratinata -- you might recognize it from other dishes like fettucine alfredo or lasagna. In a gratinata, it adds a silky creaminess to a casserole that contrasts with the crunch of breadcrumbs on top.

Gratinée, Au Gratin, Gratinata, Oh My!

There are several different names for this rich dish, often served as a side. If the term gratinata is unfamiliar to you, the words "au gratin" may ring a bell. To prepare a dish au gratin or as a gratinata is to finish it with a generous sprinkling of cheese, breadcrumbs and butter prior to baking. A gratinata often includes béchamel sauce, as well, which coats the ingredients before they're placed in a casserole dish and topped.

A Most Buttery Béchamel

You’ve most likely made acquaintances with the likes of the béchamel sauce in fettucine Alfredo, maraconi and cheese or creamy soups. It starts with a pan of melted butter. Once liquefied, an equal amount of flour is whisked in until the mixture is thickened and golden brown. This mixture is called a roux and thickens up whatever it's mixed with next. In the case of a béchamel, a dairy ingredient -- usually milk or cream -- is whisked in until incorporated. The sauce is then brought to a boil and simmered. Once the béchamel thickens, it’s ready to be incorporated into the gratinata dish.

Put a Coat On

Now that you have a béchamel for your gratinata, you need something to coat. Many ingredients can be prepared in the gratinata fashion. Potatoes au gratin is a common dish found on many restaurant menus, but all kinds of root vegetables, many types of produce, pastas and other ingredients can be made au gratin, as well. Whatever will be the star of your gratinata dish should be chopped according to your recipe before tossing with the béchamel to allow it to cook properly. For example, potatoes must be sliced thinly to cook through. Then the ingredients are tossed with the béchamel, topped with cheese, breadcrumbs and butter and baked.

Gratinata Sauce Many Ways

The béchamel sauce used for gratinatas is a key player in many other dishes. It can take any pasta dish from lackluster to creamy. Use it as a saucy layer in lasagna, mix it with garlic and Parmesan for a classic Alfredo or dice up some vegetables and make it a pasta primavera night. You can also use it in a chicken or vegetable pot pie, as the base for chowders or creamy soups or for a homemade queso with the addition of cheese.

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