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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Béarnaise Sauce

I love sauces.

If I were to pick any role in a chef's kitchen, I'd want to be the saucier.  Hands down.

It is often the most time-consuming thing to cook in a meal, but can also be the single most rewarding element.  

Rather than think of sauces as a 'sides', 'garnishes' or 'condiments' I like to consider sauces 'accents'.  A good, complex, sauce can essentially create an entire flavour "theme".  I therefore believe that they can be relied upon to carry a significant amount of weight.  

So, when creating sauces, I hardly ever skimp on the flavour.  Although my kitchen sees many "low-fat" or "low-sodium" dishes, sauces are rarely included among them.  I believe in balance, and I'd much rather eat a couple of healthy meals before and after a rich one... but have that rich one be full-flavour.  I realize I'm starting to sound defensive, and I really shouldn't; I only actually prepare a rich sauce like this about once a month.

So... tonight I made up a béarnaise sauce.

My wife is batty for béarnaise.  I think it is all the tarragon.  She likes tarragon.  Myself, I'm more of a hollandaise fan... but whatever.  In fact, I'm surprised I haven't written any posts about hollandaise yet... I make a rich hollandaise fairly often (well... once every couple of months...)

I love the emulsification power of egg yolk.  The first time I made my own mayonnaise (never really was a fan of store-bought mayo) I was blown away; not just by how far a single egg yolk can stretch, but also by how easy and fun it was.  It was also quite tasty, and has now led to many a flavoured mayo in my house over the years.  As it happens, both hollandaise and béarnaise are actually kind of similar to mayonnaise.  Kinda.

All three involve emulsifying egg yolks and oil.  They differ only by what other things you add to them other than that.  Mayo is a little easier, because you don't have to worry about heating up the yolk (no cooking involved) and because mayo is typically made with vegetable (olive) oil rather than butter.  However, with béarnaise and hollandaise, it can be a little trickier... especially your first few times.

OK... what you're technically supposed to do, and what every recipe I've ever read says, involves bringing out a double-boiler, and putting your egg yolks in first.  Only after first heating that up slowly do you then add (slowly, and VERY gradually) your butter to that, stirring regularly.
I'm going to be a little difficult here and say that that doesn't necessarily have to be the case.

Now... a caveat on that:  if you are the kind of person who is easily distracted, and can not assure yourself that you'll stand there and diligently watch your sauce; or if you can not feel 100% confident that you have an even heat source and an evenly-heated sauce pan, then I will suggest that you do use the double-boiler.  The point is that the surface of the sauce pan needs to be very uniform in temperature, and not really have any uncontrolled temperature spikes.

ALL of this "technique" comes down to the very simple fact that we are trying to prevent the egg yolks from coagulating.  It can involve some tricky timing to get the yolks to emulsify but not solidify.  That is why there is such concern over maintaining an even cooking temperature.  Egg yolk can start to coagulate at temperatures as low as 65°C, which isn't terribly hot.

Anyway, the point I am trying to make is that, if you can feel confident about actually controlling this emulsification, and feel strongly that you can avoid any unwanted coagulation, then feel free to disregard these stringent limitations on technique.

Like I said above, however, if this is your first time, or if your pans are old and warped, or your range puts out an uneven heat... well then you should just stick with the "correct" methodology.

Now, the way that I make egg-based sauces is sort of backwards.  I will heat the butter (oil) first, and then slowly and very gradually add the egg yolks.  There are two things that need to happen for this methodology to work.  First, you need to add a "cool down" step to your heated butter in order to bring the temperature down to a reasonable level before adding the yolk (never add egg to anything hot unless you want it to solidify immediately).  Second, you need to have a good idea of your oil-to-yolk ratio beforehand; one of the reasons it is recommended to add the oil to the yolks slowly, is because there is a VERY quick transition from runny (not ready yet) to emulsified (good and ready) to over-saturated (oily and separated).  So, even if you've followed the steps perfectly, that ratio can be a harsh limiting variable.  The size of egg yolks, for example, can vary quite a bit... it doesn't hurt to be able to know whether you need to cut down on the butter or actually add a bit more in, accordingly.

There really is a small window wherein the mixture has incorporated the "right" amount of  oil.  If you've ever made a home-made mayonnaise, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about.

There are a couple of tricks to save an egg-based sauce if it ever comes to that... and I'll get into that later (see the troubleshooting section below).

For now though, let me show you how I made my béarnaise sauce.

So the first thing you do is let your butter soften.  With almost any sauce I'd say you could probably substitute margarine for the butter... but NOT with béarnaise or hollandaise.  OK?  

Bring the butter to roughly room temperature, and slice it into thirds or quarters.

Now, for a béarnaise sauce, the primary flavour is going to be tarragon, but an authentic béarnaise will also have chervil and white peppercorns.  I ran out of chervil, and used parsley instead (which isn't a perfect substitution, but it's the tarragon that gives béarnaise its dominant flavour anyway).

So, I pinched out maybe a teaspoon of each... maybe two teaspoons for the tarragon.

The next significant flavour in béarnaise is the green onion, which I love, as you'll know.  I chopped three small-ish scallions finely, and got everything organized and ready to go by putting everything in its own mixing bowl.  

Even though I am truly a master of sauces ( :D ), during crunch time it can be a pain not having everything on hand and ready to go.  

This included milling all those dried herbs into one mix, and also separating and beating the egg yolks.

So, at this point, we're good to go!

The other reason I'm more of a hollandaise fan, is that béarnaise has a lot of vinegar in it.

In hollandaise, I get away with using entirely lemon juice instead of any vinegar, and it is immensely more... gallant... on the tongue.  Lemon juice curtsies prettily to your sauce, then gracefully turns to face your tongue with genial poise.  Vinegar, on the other hand, bitch-slaps your sauce, then backflips unto your tongue and curb-stomps it a couple of times with a maniacal grin on its face.

I do like vinegars... there are a ton of great uses for them, and they can be pretty good for you as well...  I could spend hours listing awesome uses to which I put vinegars of all sorts and flavours... but it suffices to say that I like vinegars.  

Even in sauces.

Just not egg-based sauces.  For whatever reason I just personally dislike the pairing of vinegar with butter and egg yolk.

Anyway, back to the béarnaise.  For the amount of butter (1/2 cup) and egg yolks (4) I'm using in this recipe, you are supposed to use about 3 - 4 tablespoons of vinegar.  A good white wine vinegar is best.  Feel free to cut this down a bit if you're like me and dislike a tart béarnaise.  What I ended up doing was 2 tablespoons of vinegar, and 1 tablespoon of lemon juice.

So, heat that up in a saucepan with all your herbs and spices.

Let that come to a boil, and to reduce, by about half.  About 2-3 minutes.

Next, take the pan off the heat entirely, and let it cool for a minute or three.  At this point feel free to add one of the chunks (a third or a quarter) of the butter, and stir it in. This will even help cool it down a bit.

Once the mixture is cool-ish, put the pan back on the heat and slowly add in the egg-yolks.  The next five to ten minutes are the crucial ones, and the most tedious.  Try to whisk very often, if not constantly, and make sure that you're heating this on low.  Do not try to cut corners on this step.  

Over time, your sauce will be able to "accept" the other two chunks of butter without the consistency changing a whole lot.

So... while heating on low, and stirring or whisking constantly, your sauce will eventually (after about 8 mins or so) hit a magic thickening stage.  The egg yolks will coagulate, and beautifully emulsify all those chemically-disparate substances into one glorious sauce.

The above picture shows a béarnaise sauce which has reached a ready stage, and could be served at this point.


If you're like me, you'll probably have other things needing doing in the kitchen.  I like to wait to prepare some dishes (like steaming vegetables) until near the very end and so I wanted to put this sauce on hold.  So I covered it, and took it off the heat.

Take it off the heat if you're not going to serve it up right away.  Over-cooking is devastating to an egg-based sauce.

So, I waited for my wife to come home from work, and cooked my meal (steak frites and steamed asparagus).  The béarnaise sauce sat for about 30 mins.  And (as fully expected) it congealed a little bit:

So, I'll let you in on a little secret for béarnaises and hollandaises.

Call this a troubleshooting section, if you will.  :D

If you've accidentally added your oil too quickly, or you've ended up adding too much oil, you'll know right away because the sauce will separate... basically you'll be able to "see" the oil rather than have it disappear into the sauce.  A small teaspoon of hot water can bring this back almost immediately.  Add the water in VERY small amounts, and give it a minute... you'll see it almost magically transforms back into a thick emulsification.

The same solution, a small spoonful of hot water, can also revitalize a coagulated or over-cooked sauce (as seen in the last photo above).  Leaving the sauce - even off of the heat - will often cause a little congealing.

But... here is what it looked like right after adding only a teaspoon of hot water, and whisking for a minute.

Almost good as new.

Anyway, béarnaise is still an awesome sauce, even if it is heavy on the tarragon and vinegar flavours.  It is very often served over beef (steak béarnaise) but also pairs well with freshly steamed green vegetables.  It is very similar to an hollandaise sauce, but is significantly more savoury.  And although you could probably get away with substituing hollandaise anywhere béarnaise is intended, I would not recommend the converse.

If you're interested in how I served this béarnaise, check out my post on steak frites and steamed asparagus.