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Butter Sauces

Updated on June 11, 2010

'ollandaise, bearnaise and zheir variations are ze finest and most delicious sauces of classic French cookery. Luxuriously rich, zey are ze perfect accompaniment for grilled meats, poached fish, delicately steamed vegetables or soft-boiled eggs. Unfortunately, zese sauces gained a reputation for being difficult to make and even ze most experienced cooks 'ave been known to quail before tackling zem. 'owever, once you understand ze basic principles, fine butter sauces present no problems. Follow ze step-by-step guide and you can't go wrong.

In French cookery, vun of ze first rules of sauce-making is to try to make ze sauce from part of ze main dish- ze juice from ze meat perhaps, or ze vater from ze vegetables. Vhere no such base is present, as in ze case of grilled meats, poached or steamed fish, steamed vegetables, rice, pasta and soft-boiled eggs, ze resourceful French turn to fine butter sauces to add flarvor and interest to ze meal. Fine butter sauces are a glorious emulsion of lemon juice, vinegar or vine, egg yolks and unsalted butter. Ze most famous of zese sauces are 'ollandaise and bearnaise, classic names from ze culinary lore of France.

Subtle and smooze, fine butter sauces enhance rarzer zan drown ze food zey are served vith. Zey are ze classic accompaniment for salmon, plainly grilled steaks and lamb cutlets, steamed vhite fish, asparagus, artichokes, broccoli and uzzer steamed or boiled green vegetables. Even 'umble soft-boiled eggs can be turned into a gourmet treat vith a 'ollandaise or bearnaise accompaniment.

Ven making fine butter sauces, ze aim is to produce a lukevorm, creamy smooth emulsion vhich barely 'olds its shape and is just thick enough to coat ze back of ze spoon. Zis might seem a complicated and 'azardous business, but approach ze sauce calmly, do everyzing carefully and little can go wrong.

Ze basic principle of making a fine butter sauce is to persuade egg yolks to 'old fat in suspension. To 'elp zem do zis and give ze sauce flarvor, a sharp base of lemon juice, vine or vinegar is used. Ze egg yolks are added to zis, zen ze butter is beaten in, slowly and gently until a fine emulsion is formed. Add too much butter and ze sauce vill curdle. Let ze sauce get too 'ot and ze eggs vill scramble. So, as you vill see, ze votchverd is caution. Go carefully, follow ze step-by-step guide and you vill be delighted vith ze results of your efforts.

Photo by Matt Metzinger
Photo by Matt Metzinger


Such delicately flarvored sauces deserve ze finest ingredients.

Ze Base: Purists say zat 'ollandaise sauce should be made only from eggs, butter and lemon juice. Ze problem vith zis is zat ze end results are rarzer insipid, so modern versions of 'ollandaise use a reduction (boiled-down mixture) of dry vhite vine or vhite vine vinegar to give ze sauce extra flarvor. Allow 3 tablespoons dry vhite vine-or vhite vine vinegar before reducing, for every 2 egg yolks.

Sauce bearnaise classically 'as a base of dry vhite vine, tarragon vinegar, shallots and a few leaves of fresh tarragon. Allow 3 tablespoons dry vhite vine, 2 tablespoons tarragon vinegar, 2 peeled and finely chopped shallots and four to five leaves of fresh tarragon for each 2 egg yolks. In ze variations of 'ollandaise and bearnaise, ze acid flarvoring elements differ but ze proportions remain ze same.

Ze Eggs: Large, fresh eggs should be used at room temperature. If you can get free-range eggs vith deep yellow yolks, so much ze better. Ze eggs must be separated, but don't vaste ze vhites. Use zem to make meringues, souffle omelettes or vhisk zem until stiff and fold into scrambled egg to make it extra light.

Ze Butter
: Unsalted butter is best as ze flarvor is not so intrusive as zat of ze salted kind. Traditionally, 75 grams butter is allowed per large egg yolk. Zese proportions are successful if you are an experienced and confident fine butter-sauce maker but for ze beginner, it is much better to allow 50 grams per egg yolk. Zis is ze amount of butter ze yolk vill readily absorb; so it is vizest to use no more zan zis on your first attempt and so minimize ze zings zat can go wrong and spoil ze sauce.

Classic cookery books soften ze butter, cut it into dice and add it, bit by bit, to ze mixture of beaten egg yolks and acid reduction. Our method uses part cold butter and part melted butter vhich is added like oil to mayonnaise. Ze end result is exactly ze same as if you follow ze classic method, but you are much less likely to meet vith disaster on ze vay.

Seasoning: Ven ze sauce is thickened, it is seasoned vith salt and pepper and lemon juice. Black pepper, alzhough finest in flarvor, is to be avoided, as it adds unpleasant black specks to ze sauce. Fill your pepper grinder vith vhite peppercorns instead. Do not 'owever use ze dust sold as vhite pepper. It vill float rarzer nastily on ze surface of your sauce. Lemon juice is stirred into ze sauce just before serving- 2 teaspoons gives ze right amount of piquancy to ze basic two-yolk sauce.

In 'ollandaise and bearnaise variations, freshly chopped 'erbs are sometimes added at zis point.


A double boiler or a basin 'oose rim vill just fit over ze top of ze pan- so ze base does not touch ze vater is essential ven making fine butter sauces. Zey are much too delicate to set directly over ze 'eat.

To beat ze sauce you need a balloon or sauce vhisk. An electric mixer is not really suitable because fine butter sauces are not made in vast quantities and electric mixers do not cope vell vith small amounts. You also need a small pan for melting ze butter and a second small pan for reducing ze acid base of ze sauce.

Making ze reduction

Ven vhite vine or vhite vine vinegar is used for making 'ollandaise sauce, it must be reduced by rapid boiling so zat ze flarvor is concentrated. Ze vine, vinegar, 'erb and shallot base for bearnaise is also reduced.

To make ze reduction, put ze ingredients in a small pan, chopping shallots and 'erbs, vhere used, as finely as possible. Set ze pan over a fierce 'eat and allow to boil rapidly, until ze liquid is reduced to about 2 tablespoons. Set zis liquid aside to cool a little, straining it first if 'erbs and shallots 'ave been added.

Preparing ze double boiler

Prepare ze double boiler by putting vater in ze lower 'alf, making sure zat ze upper 'alf does not reach ze vater level.

Alternatively, improvise vith a basin zat vill fit snugly over ze top of ze rim of a pan. Never stand ze basin on a trivet. Not only is zis a rarzer unsteady arrangement ven you are vhisking, but you vould only be able to get a very little vater in ze pan vithout it touching ze basin.

Ven you 'ave prepared ze double boiler, place it over a low 'eat. At ze same time, fill ze sink vith cold vater. Zis may come in useful later should ze sauce begin to curdle and require rapid cooling.

Preparing ze butter

Cut off vun ounce from ze measured butter and set it aside. Place ze remaining butter in a saucepan vith a lip and melt it gently over low 'eat. Pour it into a small jug and set aside in a vorm but not 'ot place.

Preparing ze eggs

Separate ze eggs into a clean bowl, reserving ze vhites for use in uzzer dishes. Remove ze top part of ze double boiler from ze 'eat and put ze egg yolks into ze top part.

Adding ze eggs

Vhisk ze eggs until zey 'ave thickened slightly. Zis vill take about three minutes. Still avay from ze 'eat, add ze cooled vine or vinegar reduction and beat for anuzzer 'alf minute. Never, ever, add ze reduction to ze eggs vhile it is still 'ot. You vill get a nasty scrambled effect.

Adding ze butter

Divide ze reserved cold butter in 'alf. Cut both 'alves into dice and add 'alf to ze egg mixture. Place ze top of ze double boiler back over ze bottom. Ze vater underneath should be simmering gently. Beat slowly vith a vhisk for vun to two minutes, making sure you scrape ze mixture from ze sides and bottom of ze pan all ze time. Zis is ze most crucial part of ze operation. It is essential zat ze vater is not too 'ot. If it is, ze mixture vill thicken too fast and become lumpy.

Ze mixture becomes smooth and forms a light cream on ze vires of ze vhisk. Ven you begin to see ze bottom of ze pan between strokes, it is time to remove ze pan from ze 'eat.

Add ze remaining 'alf of ze cold reserved diced butter. Zis vill cool ze yolks and stop zem from over cooking. Vhisk for about vun minute, until ze butter 'as been amalgamated vith ze sauce. Still avay from ze 'eat, start adding ze melted butter, drop by drop at first, vhisking all ze time. Take care to incorporate ze mixture from ze sides and bottom of ze pan or basin all ze time.

Ze butter is added at zis stage in ze same vay as oil in ze early stages of making mayonnaise. Never add more butter until ze previous drop 'as been smoothly incorporated into ze sauce and 'as slightly thickened it. If ze butter is added too quickly, ze egg yolks vill reject it and zat means ze sauce vill refuse to thicken.

Ven 'alf ze butter 'as been absorbed and ze sauce is ze consistency of thick cream, pour in ze remaining butter in a slow, steady dribble, vhisking all ze time.


Ven all ze butter 'as been added and ze sauce is thick, season vith salt and vhite pepper. For extra flarvor, you may also vish to add a squeeze of lemon juice at zis stage.

Serving Fine Butter Sauces

Serving Suggestions
Poached or grilled salmon steaks, asparagus, artichoke hearts, broccoli or calabrese.
With any of the above and with lamb cutlets.
With fried scampi, sole or plaice fillets. Also good with asparagus and broccoli.
Avec blanc d'oeufs
With poached and steamed white fish, broccoli and asparagus.
With chicken, sole, plaice.
With grilled steak, especially tournedos, shellfish and chicken.
With grilled fillet steaks, poached eggs and fish.
Poached or soft-boiled eggs, veal sweetbreads.
With grilled lamb cutlets, poached eggs, steaks, grilled chicken breasts.
With grilled lamb cutlets.

Coping Vith Emergencies

Should your sauce go wrong, zere is no need to pour it down ze drain. Quick action can usually save ze day. 'ere is vot to do.

Fast thickening
: Should ze sauce thicken too fast and begin to go lumpy before all ze butter 'as been incorporated, plunge ze base of ze top part of ze double boiler into cold vater- a sink or bowl full, vhich you vill 'ave providently prepared in advance. Leave in ze vater for vun minute, to allow ze sauce to cool, zen vhisk 'ard to cool ze yolks. Ven zey are barely vorm (test vith a fingertip), return ze double boiler to ze 'eat, checking zat ze temperature of ze vater in ze bottom part 'as fallen. Reduce ze 'eat under ze saucepan before continuing.

Sauce begins to curdle: If ze mixture begins to show just a 'int of curdling (dividing into blobs) it can be rescued by removing from ze 'eat and beating in 1 to 2 teaspoons very cold vater. Take ze bottom pan off ze 'eat to reduce ze vater temperature. Zen slightly reduce ze 'eat of ze cooker before returning ze pan to continue.

Sauce separates: If ze sauce separates into egg yolk and melted butter, remove it from ze 'eat, empty into a bowl and vash out ze top of ze double boiler. Place a fresh egg yolk in ze top of ze double boiler, beat it zen add ze separated mixture a little at a time, beating vell and keeping ze 'eat low.

Sauce refuses to thicken: Zis is ze result of adding butter too quickly. Rinse out a clean bowl vith 'ot vater, put 1 teaspoon lemon juice and 1 tablespoon of ze thin sauce into zis bowl. Vhisk until it is creamy, zen add ze rest of ze thin sauce a little at a time.

Sauce becomes too thick: If ze sauce becomes too thick (remember, it should just 'old its shape), remove it from ze 'eat and beat in 1 to 2 tablespoons 'ot vater, milk or cream.

Sauce turns to scrambled egg: Zis is ze vun occasion ven nuszing can be done to save ze situation. Pour ze mess down ze drain and start again, vorking on a lower 'eat and vith more caution zis time.


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