You can add the art of sauce-making to your culinary repertoire by learning how to make hollandaise sauce, a rich and tangy “mother” sauce you can later expand upon.
According to Julia Child, “Sauces are the splendor and glory of French cooking.” Ever practical, the force behind bringing the splendor of French cooking to the masses also believed that one of sauce’s most useful functions is “to make an interesting dish out of something simple.” Hollandaise sauce is rich, tangy, and fancifies the simple foods it’s served with, which most often include English muffins, eggs, asparagus and artichokes.
Although a list of French sauces could go on and on, they can actually be divided into just a few families, with hollandaise being a “mother” sauce — the mother of the egg yolk-and-butter sauces, to be exact.
You may have heard that it’s tricky to make hollandaise sauce, and that’s true. An egg yolk will hold a certain number of fat droplets in suspension — this is called a “colloid” — until it can’t hold any more, at which point it “breaks.” The most delicious hollandaise sauces contain a maximum of butter, but starting with a minimum will help you achieve success. You can actually make hollandaise in a blender without fail (see Blender Hollandaise to learn how), but that method won’t allow you to use the maximum amount of butter, nor will it teach you how to make a mother sauce that you can later expand upon.
Alton Brown, the nerdy Food Network chef who loves demystifying cooking science, believes that sauces are scary to today’s home cooks because “they are not of our time.” They are of a time when chef “dinosaurs” roamed the Earth, he says. Not enough of today’s kitchens have the meat scraps, bones, fish heads and carrot tops lying around that are necessary to create great stocks and sauces, so the techniques have fallen out of practice. But you can change that. Why not give sauce-making a shot so you’ll be able to say you can cook as well as those “culinary T-Rexes” of yore?
Eggs and butter from animals raised on pasture will yield a richer, more delicious — and more nutritious — sauce.
After you’ve nailed the basic hollandaise technique, check out Chapter 2 of Child’s masterpiece, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, to learn 10 ways to build basic hollandaise into something even more “interesting.” Afterward, you can dive into 60 other sauces.
1 tbsp cold water
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
Pinch of kosher salt
Pinch of sugar (optional; see Step 4)
2 tbsp cold butter, divided
6 to 8 ounces (1 1/2 to 2 sticks) melted butter*
Salt and cayenne, to taste
* Melted whole butter adds more flavor than clarified butter, which has had its milk solids removed.
1. Prepare a faux double boiler (unless you have the real thing). Choose a stainless steel or heat-proof glass bowl that will nestle into one of your saucepans with room in the pan for an inch or two of water. The bottom of the bowl should not touch the water.
2. Separate 3 eggs. You’ll only need the yolks, but the whites will freeze well for later use, or you can turn them into a simple egg white omelet in the next day or so. Be careful to remove as much of the whites as possible. The yolks contain the stabilizing agent that will keep your sauce in tasty suspension; the whites don’t. (For a more detailed explanation of the emulsification process that keeps everyone playing nicely in a warm bath of hollandaise, visit Science of Eggs.)
3. Whisk the cold water and the egg yolks vigorously in your bowl, until the yolks lighten in color and feel. This step helps unwind the proteins in the egg, which will help them relax and prevent curdling later when they meet an acid (lemon juice).
4. Whisk in the lemon juice and salt. Optional: At this point, you can also whisk in a pinch of sugar if you like, because sugar messes with egg yolks’ ability to curdle. Adding it is akin to hiring help, however, and is not part of the classic mother sauce tradition.
5. Bring 1 to 2 inches of water to a boil in the saucepan, then reduce to a heat high enough to keep the water simmering but low enough to prevent eggs from scrambling (about medium-low).
6. Add a tablespoon of cold butter to the egg yolk mixture, then place the bowl over the saucepan. Whisk without ceasing for several minutes, until the mixture leaves streaks on the bottom of the bowl and is as thick as heavy cream. It is important to whisk continuously to encourage an even dispersion of ingredients and prevent the butterfat from hanging out in a clump.
7. Remove from heat and whisk in another tablespoon of cold butter immediately. This will cool down the yolks.
8. Now, carefully, while whisking the mixture, begin to beat in tiny droplets of melted butter. How big is a droplet, you ask? About a fourth of a teaspoon and no more. We’re talking tiny! It is most important to add melted butter very slowly at first. Then you can be a bit more generous with the droplets or pour in a slow stream of butter as you whisk and the mixture begins to thicken into a sauce.
9. Season the sauce with cayenne and a bit more lemon juice and salt, if you like. At this stage, you can mix in other spices or a flavorful stock for an even more complex flavor.
10. Always serve hollandaise sauce warm, and keep it warm (not hot) in a thermos or a pan near a warm burner.
Chef Scott Swartz of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) starts with a reduction of black peppercorns and white wine vinegar, which he adds to the yolks at the beginning of hollandaise preparation. To watch his tutorial, check out the CIA’s three-part series about Eggs Benedict, starting with Eggs Benedicts for Mother’s Day Brunch.
At one of New York City’s classic weekend brunch institutions, Isabella’s, chefs combine hollandaise with au poivre sauce to create a spectacular pairing for eggs, potatoes or steak. If you’d like to give it a go, first learn how to make steak au poivre via another CIA video: Steak au Poivre. Then mix the au poivre sauce with your homemade hollandaise sauce. If you’re feeling inspired but not quite that ambitious, just add a bit of beef stock and tons of crushed green peppercorns to basic hollandaise.
Wylie Dufresne, one of America’s innovators in the “molecular gastronomy” tradition, has deconstructed this mother sauce into a scientific wonder: fried cubes of hollandaise. Check out Fried Hollandaise Sauce: Achievable With Science on National Public Radio’s “Science Friday” program page.
If your sauce happens to “break,” don’t despair. Although it may not be quite as delicate, you can save it by re-emulsifying it. Simply whip your warm sauce a little bit at a time into a tablespoon of cold water or lemon juice, and serve immediately.
Hollandaise can be stored in the refrigerator for a couple of days. Slowly heat a couple of tablespoons of it over low heat, then gradually whisk in the rest of the sauce. Hollandaise sauce can also be frozen and then reheated in this manner.
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