Both of these butter- and egg-based sauces, hollandaise and béarnaise, only take about five minutes to make, but an awful lot longer to prepare. You will see many alternative recipes in books, but Mum’s was based on Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking, and that’s where I went when I had to start from scratch. Hollandaise and béarnaise are based on a mix of base ingredients, but add different flavourings. The basics usually include the following: egg yolks, white wine vinegar, butter, peppercorns, and bay leaves. The differences are described below.
Hollandaise is usually served used with fish and/or vegetables, and is traditionally made with egg yolks, butter and lemon juice. It is a rich, buttery sauce that gives the kiss of heavenly life to poached salmon and asparagus.
Béarnaise accompanies steak and is defined mainly by armfuls of tarragon. Another traditional differentiator is that it is usually made with white wine and vinegar instead of lemon juice.
Breaking with tradition, my hollandaise and béarnaise both have the same base by using a same reduction as the base for both sauces. I combine all three liquids, the lemon juice, wine vinegar and white wine and mix them together as a base for the reduction in both hollandaise and béarnaise. The only differentiator in my version is that lots of tarragon is added to make béarnaise. My reason for this blending of the two recipes stems from a comment of Elizabeth David’s that an hollandaise based on just butter, egg yoks and lemon juice is “apt to be insipid” and consequently she recommends the addition of a reduction of white wine or vinegar (as in béarnaise). It works splendidly for me, but I would suggest that you experiment. The only time I feel like doing an hollandaise the original way is with poached salmon, where the simplicity of the lemon, egg and butter mix is perfect.
Cover of the hardback version of Elizabeth David’s “French Provincial Cooking,” Grub Street, 1960, 2007
On this occasion I was cooking a béarnaise sauce, so I used a huge handful of tarragon from my garden. A couple of nights ago I found a ribeye steak from Bellis (farm shop and butcher in Holt) in the freezer. The Bellis ribeye is wonderful, although I have no idea where they source it from. It deserved special treatment, and as I have three big pots of French tarragon in the garden, and had a box of Churton eggs at the ready, here’s how I did it, resulting in a happily successful outcome.
A couple of weeks ago I was very gung-ho about how easy it is to make mayonnaise in my post on the subject, which I think is fair enough because it is so easy when you know the two basic rules about how to handle it. However, I am never gung-ho about Hollandaise or béarnaise, because they can go seriously wrong. I’ve only screwed it up a couple of times, and I have now learned some excellent risk-avoidance techniques and one or two rescue solutions. Preparation minimizes the risks, but things can still go wrong, especially when you are starting out. On the other hand. WOW is it wonderful, so the best thing to do is to prepare well and experiment on someone who won’t mind being a guinea pig. Once you have the knack, and you will have it for life.
There are a couple of technical points to take into consideration, other than briefly editing out the conversation of your friends. Hollandaise and béarnaise are all about preparation, and that’s not just about lining up your ingredients and equipment, but understanding how it’s all going to work, and how you may attempt to to recover it when/if it goes wrong.
First, both sauces have a terrible reputation for splitting, which means that after being heated, the oil in the butter separates from the other ingredients and you end up with a big oily mess on your hands. Eggs should be at a nice cool room temperature before you start. This is only a small part of the prep work, but it is an essential one.
Two, I have experimented and found that clarifying the butter makes life a lot easier. I have no idea what the proper way of doing it may be, but I simply heated butter in a saucepan and poured it into a small jug. White bits (solids) drop to the bottom of the jug leaving a translucent, bright yellow liquid on top. The yellow bit is the clarified butter and the white bits need to be left in the bottom of the jug. It means that you use a lot less butter, because it emulsifies much more efficiently, which is much better for the health. That in turn means that it forms more quickly. As a technique, it is also easier to prevent separation of the oil from the egg because you can easily control the addition of the butter, in drops and a slow trickle, to the egg and vinegar mix. So I now always start off by separating my egg/s. Keep the clarified butter somewhere warm so that it does not solidify.
Three, make sure you have some ice cubes in the freezer. If everything starts to overheat you will end up with scrambled egg. A bit of cold water helps, but if it is going too far too fast, lob in an ice cube, stir it rapidly until the sauce starts to go slightly lighter in colour and then haul it out. That usually does the trick.
My impromptu bain marie, at the back, consisting of a glass bowl over a small saucepan of simmering water that heats the sauce, reducing the chance of splitting. The asparagus is steamed, but here it is waiting in cold water prior to cooking, after having its ends trimmed. Don’t worry – not all of this went on to my plate! Some of it made a leek and asparagus soup.
Four, if you don’t have a bain marie (I don’t) you need to sort out a glass bowl (not metal) that will sit over one of your small saucepans. Anyone who has worked with chocolate will be familiar with this. The water in the pan must not come into contact with the glass bowl, and should simmer, not boil. You are cooking your eggs with indirect heat, not direct heat, a bit like steaming. However, no lid is required. A wooden spoon must be to hand for almost constant stirring, so that the sauce is moved constantly into and away from the heat.
Five, and assuming that you are making a béarnaise for steak (which means a lot of tarragon), take hold of your tarragon and divide it in half, finely chopping all of the leaves. Do not throw away the stalks, but snap them into short sections. Keep half of the leaves on one side and put the other half of the leaves and all the stalks into a bowl of white wine vinegar, shallot, bay and white wine. Leave it to infuse flavour into the vinegar for an hour or so.
Six, Whatever gas you are cooking on, what you want for the sauce is a light simmer, absolutely not a boil. If the water is boiling, you run the risk of creating scrambled eggs, not a sauce. I am cooking on Calor gas, not mains gas. Calor and Butane burn hotter and make it difficult to maintain a low temperature. I have a set of round, diffusing metal plates with handles that sit over the top of my hob and diffuse the heat, allowing the water to become hot but preventing it from boiling.
Seven, if you are intending to serve this in a jug rather than just plonking it onto plates alongside whatever else you are eating, remember that the jug (as well as the plates) needs to be warmed through. If you pour warm hollandaise/béarnaise into a cold jug you will instantly lose the heat and end up with a cold sauce and, more importantly, you will raise the chances of it separating before it reaches the table.
Eight, there are conflicting views in the literature on whether you should use salted or unsalted butter. I use salted. Salt helps the emulsification (thickening) process but you can also add salt to a sauce made with unsalted butter to taste. Just be sure to add it early on in the sauce-making process so that it helps to emulsify the sauce. I’ve tried it and it works, but unsalted butter with no additional salt is risky.
Nine, keep some cold water in a jug at the side so that if your sauce starts to over-thicken you can loosen it up. Add a teaspoon at a time until you have the right consistency. Cold water also helps to prevent the sauce over-heating and separating.
Ten, the vinegar mixture must go into the egg and butter hot. Do not let it cool down.
Finally, bear in mind that the whole process is only going to take a few minutes once you have added the hot vinegar mix to the egg yolk and started adding the butter, no more than five minutes, possibly less. Most of the time is taken up with preparation. Whatever you are intending to serve it with, you either need to be good at delivering multiple time-sensitive dishes in one go, or alternatively persuade someone to look after the rest of the meal while you concentrate on the Hollandaise or béarnaise, because the latter can turn against you in just a few seconds.
If this is your first attempt, I would suggest that you keep an emergency back-up sauce or herb butter on one side. For the latter, finely chopped herbs added into soft butter, and rolled in clingfilm to form a cylindrical tube of butter, and placed in the freezer for half an hour to solidify before putting it in the fridge works well. Before serving you can chop it into disks that sit on top of your steak or fish and melt beautifully to form a gentle butter sauce. If I was planning to do a béarnaise, as in this case, the herbs chopped into the butter would be tarragon. If the béarnaise works, you can keep the herb butter in the freezer for a quick way to liven up a piece of steak or fish, or use it to make unusual, flavourful sandwiches.
Getting on with it
Everything else is fairly straight-forward, but there are a number of steps that cannot be avoided. I usually avoid writing down step-by-step instructions because whatever the recipe, the outcomes depend so much on the ingredients used and the equipment employed, but there are some things that really must be taken into account.
- I recommend clarifying the butter. Like mayonnaise, the key trick here is to add the butter so slowly that you begin to seize up. Mum used to add small lumps one by one and not add another until fully incorporated, the system that I used until just recently when I read that if you clarify the butter, it reduces the risk of separation and stabilizes it at the end. That end moment, where the sauce is ready but you may be waiting for vegetables, fish or steak to cook, is a terrible waiting game when you hope that the sauce stays in one piece, but worry that it might split. Clarifying the butter reduces the risk and the stress at one and the same time. Keep it warm until you need it so that it doesn’t solidify.
- Remember that if you are using a jug, this needs to be nice and warm to receive the sauce, as do the serving plates.
- When you are ready to cook, first you need to heat up your vinegar mix until it just threatens to boil. Turn down the heat until it is just simmering and keep a careful eye on it. You are aiming to reduce it in order to intensify the flavour. If you’re cooking for two, you’ll need about a tablespoon and a half of clear liquid, but a dessert spoon for one.
- When it has reduced, strain out the flavourings and retain the flavoured vinegar. The vinegar needs to be hot (very warm rather than boiling hot) when you add it to the egg yolk.
- Make sure that the water in the pan of your assembled bain marie arrangement is hot and place your glass dish over the top. By sealing the water pan with the bowl you will cause the water temperature to rise, so keep an eye on it to stop it boiling.
- Separate your eggs and put your egg yolks (one per person) into your glass dish. Add your vinegar (still warm) and mix it very rapidly into the yolks. You now have a beautiful yellow fluid that will start to heat in the bowl over the water.
- Add the remaining fine-chopped tarragon and give it a good stir
The sauce heating in a glass bowl set over a pan of simmering water, a quickly assembled bain marie
Now your clarified butter (or small dice-sized chunks of butter) needs to be added, but oh-so slowly. If your butter is clarified add it first in drips and then in a very slow and fine stream, stirring gently all the time and breaking now and again to ensure that it is fully incorporated. If you are using chunks, make sure that each is melted before adding the next. I cannot repeat enough that you should go slowly.
- Pause occasionally to ensure that the butter is being incorporated into the egg and vinegar mix. Adding the butter is very much suck-it-and-see, but if you go slowly enough and keep stirring you should be safe. There’s no clear guideline, because different butters emulsify the yolks at different rates, and egg yolks are different sizes.
- If it doesn’t emulsify properly, add another egg yolk and keep adding the butter. That might produce rather more sauce that you were aiming for, but hey – it’s lovely stuff!
- Continually make sure that the water is simmering, to heat the eggs, but not so hot that you end up with scrambled eggs. If it begins to cook rather than heat, add either a little cold water or an ice cube to the egg mix. Don’t forget to retrieve the ice cube before it melts. You want to cool it down, not liquefy it.
I’ve modified Elizabeth David’s recipes, as did Mum, but here are her originals on pages 118-9. Click to expand.
Don’t forget that if the water in the pan is too hot and the sauce starts to scramble, you can take it off the heat for a moment, and use ice cubes or cold water to help cool it down, stirring, and ensuring that the water in the pan has calmed down before placing the bowl back over the pan. If the sauce is thickening too much, cold water is again a good solution, added gradually.
I have never successfully recovered an Hollandaise or béarnaise that has split completely (where the butter abandons the sauce and forms rivers of oil over a lumpy egg mixture). I only ever twice split it in my early days of making this sauce. Even following all the advice about rescuing a split Hollandaise, it was a matter of chucking it away and starting again or providing an alternative sauce. But if you have used a rescue method that works, please do let me know.
The Final Product
Not an elegant presentation, but it tasted heavenly. As I said, I was doing mine with rib-eye steak (with loads of black pepper ground over it), tender stem broccoli, asparagus and baby new potatoes (which, apparently unusually, I peel). I like my steak cooked on an iron griddle pan, super-heated very quickly on the outside, which chars it but leaves it pink and moist in the middle. The spuds were boiled, the vegetables steamed and the plate heated beforehand. Terrible presentation, but in spite of that, it was a really luxurious treat.
A classic vegetarian option that I have often served as a starter just because it’s so good, is asparagus Hollandaise (no tarragon). Most fish works for a pescatarian option with Hollandaise, but salmon and swordfish are particularly good. Strongly flavoured fish like tuna and mackerel won’t work.
Health and Safety
Your egg yolks will be cooked through when it comes to serving them, so don’t worry about serving raw egg. You won’t.
Fat and cholesterol: When I was editing this, I had also been editing images of gravestones in Aldford and Farndon churchyards to go with a post on 19th Century Churton directory listings. It reminded me that both hollandaise and béarnaise are exclusively for special occasions 🙂 All that egg yolk and butter! To be handled with care, and reserved for special occasions, and avoid completely if you are trying to shed a few kilos. But one of the most delicious things ever. And don’t forget that if you clarify your butter you will use less than if you add it in chunks.
You can see my previous Churton egg adventures by clicking here.