If anyone asked me what was the best thing I did in the last few months I’d probably forgotten the answer. Memories of a million culinary escapes tend to get buried and lost in ice storms and mental fuzz that February brings. However if you asked about the last day or so I’m still dreaming of the luxury of Béarnaise sauce on my tongue with teasings of moist salmon washed down with cheap Portuguese vinho verde. The wine’s memories of sweet summer now a long dead dream I swear will never be recovered.
Just as Julia said you need to master the art of French cooking. Not to show off nor to waste on the unworthy. Making a fine sauce is its own reward and it’s slightly dangerous, this one. It’s a bit like tightrope walking because ideally it’s made by hand and there should be no machinery involved. A large bowl over a pan of simmering hot water is where the sauce is conceived, gelled and born.
If your whipping hand is too slow or the simmering steam is too hot you end up making scrambled eggs, I am told. On the other hand if it’s not hot enough you’ll be whipping a good while and consequently learn to adjust the amount of heat to allow just the right rate of slow thickening when the whip leaves ephemeral ski trails of it’s tracks on the surface. Pure joy.
I refuse to serve salmon without this sauce to accompany it. All you need is a cup of melted unsalted butter, some white wine vinegar, Dijon, an egg or two, shallots and tarragon – all of which are staples in even the poorest home around here one would hope. Feel free to bash me if I sound a bit like Marie Antoinette who I cannot stand. Yes I know that shallots are more expensive than regular onions. If you must then use onions but shallots will bring you an entire other world which regular cooking onions cannot. If I may coax you get yourself a small bag of shallots in Chinatown for $1.99 just for this recipe. Scrimp save make do and find a way. Or if you are like me ask your greengrocer to just sell you one and if he wants your patronage he will let you. Tip: Your relationship with the local greengrocer should never be taken lightly. It must be carefully nurtured. Indeed with every greengrocer you have dealings with.
True that food prices have gone up but if you look around there are still ways around it. Why only yesterday I saw unsalted butter at one of the posh groceries around here for $3.99. I’ve yet to taste it, but I doubt if it could be particularly bad for cooking purposes. Not sure how it would work on toast though.
As to the sauce in issue. Though I have never held in my arms a beautiful woman dressed in only a thin layer of luscious beautiful silk I swear this sauce has to be its culinary equivalence. I can eat it with a spoon like ice cream. I am told this is also excellent with steak.
First get yourself a sauce pan large enough (usually a medium sized) on which you can easily nestle a medium sized stainless steel bowl. If the bowl is too small it’s too close to the hot water in the pan, if it’s too big the bowl will fall off the pan without nestling and you will lose your sauce. Then get your favourite balloon whip. The point in the bowl is that it’s perfect for whipping which is the basis of the sauce’s creation.
If you are serving salmon, I usually broil it with skin side facing up having lightly seasoned the fleshy surfaces with salt and pepper and a quick dab of butter. All it takes is about five minutes under the broiler. Also have prepped your vegetables and take that timing into consideration. Usually you can whip up this sauce in about ten minutes (not including prep time) as the veg cooks. It’s much like making a big breakfast. Some orchestration is at play so everything is ready at the same time. On the other hand make the sauce and you can reheat it over simmering water in the same bowl if you prefer to get it out of the way first. Though I do enjoy the theatrics of living dangerously while the salmon broils with the risk of overcooked vegetables hanging over my head.
Three yolks instead of one whole egg will make this sauce even richer and thicker. Melt the butter beforehand slowly on low heat in a pot. I don’t have a microwave and don’t like them. Make sure you have a cup of melted butter and make sure it’s just a touch warm when you start adding it to make the sauce.
Learn about the thread pour. As in pouring the melted butter into the vinegar mixture very slowly and the pace of it is in the size of the stream of oil/fat. As thin as a thread so you don’t crowd it. This is the same standard for just about any emulsified sauce or dressing I make around here including vinaigrette. A basic skill you already have or mandatory to master through practice.
Equipment: Saucepan, bowl and my favourite balloon whisk. Saucepan diameter of 9″ and depth of 2.5″. Bowl diameter of 7.5″ with depth of about 3.5″. Essentially a substitute for a double-boiler or bain-marie.
Sauce Béarnaise For 1 to 1 1/2 cups of sauce.
One whole egg or three egg yolks
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoon white wine vinegar separated into 1 tablespoon each
1/2 teaspoon tarragon leaves (fresh). If dry use 1/4 or to taste but roughly pulverized
1 tablespoon minced shallots (or onion if in a bind)
1 cup gently melted unsalted butter (melted over low heat so it does not cook) cooled to tepid
Bring to simmer some water in a covered saucepan filled a third of the way up. While the water is heating whip together in a bowl (this bowl should nestle comfortably on top of saucepan with simmering water later when combining the butter) one egg (or three egg yolks) with the Dijon mustard and one tablespoon of white wine vinegar. At this stage this is done off the heat.
Place 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar in a small saucepan with tarragon and minced shallots. Bring to simmer over low to medium heat and keep it at simmer. Watch closely while stirring occasionally until the liquid evaporates but the shallots are still moist. This takes only a few minutes or maximum four or five.
Make sure the melted butter is slightly warm but not hot and in a saucepan or cup with an easily pourable spout. Here comes the fun part. You will be pouring the butter in a very thin stream as you whip the eggs in the bowl set over the gently steaming saucepan of water. A bit like jugglery.
The aim is to combine the butter with the egg, mustard, vinegar mixture and bring it to the consistency of something a little thicker than pouring cream; and if you are using yolks then it should be even thicker and closer to whipped cream though not that thick. You achieve this by slowly cooking the eggs and emulsification which is a result of the whipping. The whipping also keeps the eggs from over cooking and turning into scrambled eggs. If you are too slow it will curdle and ruin the sauce.
Start slow. Make sure the water is simmering sufficiently to allow steam to build up under the bowl and if need be have someone pour the butter while you whip the contents of the bowl. Place the bowl over the simmering pot and start whipping fast using balloon whip while pouring the butter in a stream as thin as a few hair strands. Whip in the butter as the oil is poured in. Do not stop whipping.
When about 1/3rd of butter is used up make sure the sauce has thickened. This will happen if there is sufficient heat from the steam. If not increase the heat so there is more steam. Once the sauce thickens you may add the rest of the butter slightly faster but until you are comfortable with the process stick to the thin stream. Also from time to time stir the butter so the milk in the bottom gets mixed in. Keep adding and whipping until all the butter is used up.
Keep whipping over gentle steam until the sauce thickens. The single egg will render a double cream consistency whereas the three yolks will make it far thicker and even more luxurious.
The above recipe is a breakdown of that described in the Sunset French Cook Book* at page 70 in its section on Emulsion sauces. The book might no longer be in print but look online for secondhand copies. While Julia Child taught me a lot this book made French cooking profoundly accessible and a walk in the park when I was a new homemaker. It has a great recipe for brioche and also baguettes. A favourite of mine for sure.
Renuka Mendis, Toronto, February 2, 2017.
*Ed. Di Vecchio, Jerry Anne; Gaulke, Judith A. Sunset French Cook Book. Menlo Park: Lane Publishing Co., 1976. Print.
Photos: Renuka Mendis.