Things don’t always make a lot of sense in the culinary world, but even when they don’t, at least we can take comfort in the fact that in the ever changing and insanely fast moving world of culinary fads and new developments, at least some things remain constants. Even when such constants don’t make a hell of a lot of sense. Like, say, the fact that for the past 20 to 30 years now, the unofficial national sauce of Denmark has, somewhat oddly, been Sauce Béarnaise; a very well-known and decidedly French sauce from the not quite so well-known French province of Béarn.
Sauce Béarnaise (or Bearnaise) is a child (derived) sauce of one of the original French mother sauces, Sauce Hollandaise, and is a rich, creamy, smooth and tangy sauce made with egg yolks, butter, white wine, vinegar shallots and tarragon. It is, in many ways, the very height of what the French sauce kitchen has to offer… Or at least it should be! In recent years, though, a worrisome development has taken place in Denmark, which has turned Sauce Bearnaise from the height of gastronomy into various more or less vile concoctions found ready-made in plastic jugs at the local mega mart and eaten, I can only assume, solely for convenience rather than pleasure.
Steak, and potatoes for that matter, are very suitable delivery vessels for sauce.” – Nikolaj Kirk, Danish chef and professional madman!
Sauce Bearnaise: A national tragedy
The development of which I speak is by no means limited to Sauce Bearnaise, or other sauces for that matter, however the shift with Sauce Bearnaise is symptomatic of a much bigger and much scarier development in our general food culture, a development that would make French culinary master and Bearnaise inventor Collinet roll over in his grave:
We have, by and large, moved away from what food should really be like, feel like and taste like, and have transcended into the realm of convenience. In the name of convenience, ease of preparation and 20-minute meals that can be cooked without attention and/or effort, we pull out more or less reasonable approximations of original products or dishes, chucked full of preservatives, chemistry and artificial coloring – and we’re strangely okay with that, all in the name of convenience. We consume these products quite happily even if they’re full of non-culinary ingredients we can barely pronounce let alone explain the purpose of in our daily diets – and we’re strangely okay with that, all in the name of convenience. We eat sub-par, ready-made, replacement meals that taste, at best, nothing like the real thing and, at worst, downright horrible – and we’re strangely okay with that, all in the name of convenience.
You have GOT to be kidding me! Photo credit: @jshaukeland on instagram.com
In short: we have, by and large, seemingly become too damn lazy to cook our own damn meals or too comfortable to try something new. Which is pretty odd considering that every other show on TV is a cooking show and that every other blog on the Internet (present reading included) is a food blog! It would appear that we have become a nation of people who would rather spend our weeknights watching, reading or dreaming about cooking rather than actually doing any cooking. Very strange behavior, that!
And Sauce Bearnaise has become the perfect example of this development. It may be the king of all sauces, but it’s also a relatively simple sauce that, given a little preparation and a fair bit of practice, could probably be thrown together in the same amount of time it would take to cook the steak to go along with it… Yet we just can’t be arsed! Rather than taking the time, we convince ourselves that it’s either not worth the time or effort or simply too scary for a Thursday evening. So we kick back, put our feet up and watch a random celebrity chef demi-God on TV cooking real Bearnaise while the content of plastic jug of supermarket “Bearnaise” bubbles away happily on the stove next to some microwaved greens and a steak sporting the familiar “oops, I forgot about it!” sear.
Mind you, that would be a supermarket jug of so-called Bearnaise made from vegetable fat, butter aromas, chemical emulsifiers, artificial flavors and a light dusting of dried herbs. A supermarket jug of Bearnaise that, despite possibly containing less fat and cholesterol, is probably even worse for you than a properly made Bearnaise – simply on account of all the crap chugged into the plastic jug to make something that’s decidedly NOT Bearnaise look a lot like something that, if eaten by a properly brainwashed individual could maybe, possibly be mistaken for a reasonable approximation of Bearnaise!
Do I have any real, scientific proof for stating that real Bearnaise is better for you? No! But I’d rather eat small quantities of something I know is bad for me than larger quantities of something I’ve fuck all idea about the consequences of eating. Yes, I swore, I’m sorry, ready-made artificial sauces make me angry, and a general lack of appreciation for quality ingredients and home-cooked meals makes me sad.
I mean really, Denmark, we’re better than that! I say it’s time we stop dreaming about real food and start cooking real food, I say it’s about time we rediscover what real food tastes like and wake up to the fact that large quantities of mass-produced industrial foods aren’t exactly good for us. I say we start cooking our own food again, even on weeknights and stop hiding behind the obvious excuses that it’s either too hard, too scary or too time consuming. I’m here to show you that even the fabled Sauce Bearnaise can be done in little to no time and with little to no sweat or tears.
Sauce Bearnaise done right
To make a proper Sauce Bearnaise, a reduction is first made of white wine, shallots, vinegar and tarragon, the reduction is strained and whisked with egg yolks over gentle heat then emulsified with clarified butter and, when heated through, hit with a heavy shot of fresh tarragon. The result is a rich, creamy, filling sauce best served in large quantities over a juicy steak and a side of potatoes.
Sauce Bearnaise done right!
That may, admittedly, all sound a little complicated, so for the sake of simplicity, think of it simply as a rich, decadent, tangy hot mayonnaise made with clarified butter rather than oil. Simple, right? And maybe ever so slightly terrifying for the home cook. Not only are you essentially making an emulsification of eggs and fat, running the risk of a split sauce, you’re also doing it over a heat source, adding the extra danger of the eggs curdling and messing up the sauce that way. I’m willing to bet that these two little facts alone are reason enough that most Danes give up on making home-made Bearnaise and settle for inferior industrial products. And that’s a shame, because it’s really not that damned hard to make Bearnaise at home!
I’m here today to produce a blog post in defense of the noble, beautiful and quite simple homemade Bearnaise. I’m here to show you that it’s not as complicated as you may think, not as difficult or scary as yo may have been led to believe, and definitely not at all time consuming. In short: I’m here to show you how easy it is to make homemade Bearnaise and how superior the original, homemade version is to the industrial products you may find at your local supermarket.
Keep it simple,
If there’s one trick to making Sauce Bearnaise seem doable rather than scary, it is to think of it as something simple rather than something difficult: Bearnaise essentially is four things: A Bearnaise essence (essentially a reduction of shallots, herbs, wine and vinegar), egg yolks, clarified butter and chopped tarragon. That’s it!
The essence and the clarified butter can both be made well in advance and will even keep well (or freeze) if properly stored. That means come dinner time, you can reward yourself and any possible co-diners (of which there will potentially be many once the news hit the street) with one of the world’s finest sauces at the cost of separating a few eggs and whisking four ingredients together over low heat. That’s less time than you’d actually need to go to the store for an inferior industrial product. All it takes is a bit of planning and a little bit of skill; the former should be easy, the latter can very easily be picked up in a few practice runs.
How to make clarified butter? Clarified butter is basically butter that has been heated and had the milk solids removed. Making clarified butter at home is easy and a simple guide can be found here, courtesy of David Lebovitz.
Keep that in mind when you read the recipe below, it’s not as hard as it seems and both essence and butter can be made days, even weeks, in advance. I actually know people who keep a steady supply of Bearnaise essence ice cubes and clarified butter in their freezer, should they ever need to whip up Bearnaise in a hurry.
Sauce Bearnaise has you worried? Don’t panic!
Still feeling a little apprehensive? You needn’t! As we’ve established above, planning will set you free! Even so, many people are still a little intimidated by sauce Bearnaise and other emulsified sauces like Hollandaise or Mayonnaise. This is the case, I’m sure, mainly because these sauces have a reputation for being difficult and splitting easily, not so much because they actually are difficult or these things actually happen often. As such, I’m sure that the people who are most apprehensive about making Sauce Bearnaise are the people who have never attempted to make Sauce Bearnaise. Believe me when I say, again, that it’s not as hard as it seems and you’ll get a feel for it quickly. Keep that in mind as you read the recipe, and by all means check out the very end of the post for some simple, helpful tips for avoiding total disaster.
Disclaimer: This recipe features undercooked eggs! While I believe the chances of getting sick are pretty slim to none, foodborne illnesses are indeed a bitch, so take care and use only the finest and freshest ingredients from trusted sources. Be sure to thoroughly wash and clean your hands, work surfaces and utensils and if you feel the least bit scared about the look of things, just walk away. If you want to be 100% safe, use pasteurized eggs, this will affect the taste ever so slightly, though.
For Bearnaise essence:
- 2 shallots finely chopped
- 3-4 tablespoons sherry vinegar
- 3-4 tablespoons white wine
- 1 bunch fresh tarragon
- 4 egg yolks room temperature
- 250 grams clarified butter
- 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
- Salt and pepper to taste
First things first:
- Go through the bunch of tarragon, pick off about a handful of the prettiest leaves and set aside. We will stir these in for garnish just before serving.
- Chop remaining leaves plus the stems roughly. We will use these for the essence.
Make Bearnaise essence:
- In a sauce pan over medium heat, add shallots, tarragon stems, the uglier tarragon leaves, vinegar, white wine, salt and pepper.
- Bring to a boil, reduce heat and cook till liquid is reduced by half.
- Pour essence through a strainer into a cup or other vessel and set aside. You should have about 3-4 tablespoons of highly acidic, highly flavorful liquid. You can use this straight away or reserve for future use.
- This is where you pause before moving on. If you're cooking the sauce right away, you'll want to make sure that everything else is timed and at the ready. If you're not cooking right away, you'll want to seal up and refrigerate or freeze the essence and continue on some other day. Once you move on, you're committed. There'll be no turning back, no changing your mind, no waiting till some other day.
Making Sauce Bearnaise:
- Pour the clarified butter into a sauce pan and place on stove over low heat.
- In another sauce pan over low heat, add four egg yolks followed by the essence, whisk thoroughly to break up yolks and combine ingredients.
- Still over low heat, whisk egg yolk/essence mixture for a few minutes until airy and slightly thickened.
- Grab pan of clarified butter and very carefully tip a teaspoon or so of butter into the egg yolks while whisking constantly and energetically with your other hand.
- Once first hit of butter is absorbed, add another teaspoon still whisking constantly wait for it to emulsify into the eggs, then add another teaspoon and so onwards.
- Once a few tablespoons or so of butter has been incorporated, you can switch to slowly pouring butter into the eggs in a slow, steady stream, whisking constantly as you do.
- When all the butter is absorbed and sauce is rich and creamy, continue to heat over low heat until sauce is warmed through.
- You can check the temperature with a thermometer or a (clean) pinky finger. Sauce should be warm, not hot. No more than 55-60 degrees. It will curdle easily!
- When sauce is warm, very quickly chop the tarragon leaves left for garnish, stir them into the sauce along with a squeeze of lemon juice.
- Taste for seasoning, add salt, pepper and lemon juice as needed and serve immediately.
- Sauce Bearnaise is best served with a side of rib eye or New York Strip steak and a pile of fries. Salad is traditional, too, so why not try some bacon-wrapped green beans?
If making emulsified egg-based sauces over direct heat makes you nervous, you can use a double boiler: Whisk the sauce together in a heavy bottom bowl set over a pot of barely simmering water.
If whisking sounds tiresome and hard, fear not. It's okay to use a hand mixer or similar.
Avoiding disaster – Sauce Bearnaise Tips
Still looking of a bit of reassurance? I don’t blame you! I was a little intimidated when I made Sauce Bearnaise for the first time myself. And by a little intimidated, I mean I was trying to pretend like it was the easiest thing in the world, all while sweating bullets and trying not to make the fear show through in my eyes! Having been over the procedure a few times now, though, I can honestly tell you that it’s really not that damn complicated. If you need an extra little bit of insurance, follow these few basic tips and you’ll be well on your way to Bearnaise perfection:
Easy does it: The most common reason for an emulsified sauce splitting (be it Bearnaise, Hollandaise or Mayonnaise) is because fat is added too quickly to the eggs. When you start out making your Bearnaise make sure you whisk the eggs thoroughly together, then start dripping in butter slowly, drop by drop to begin with. Once the first few tablespoons have been integrated without disaster ensuing, you can grow bolder and start slowly pouring in fat in a slow, steady stream.
Not Superman? It’s okay to use a hand mixer: When we first start out in the kitchen, many of us are surprised how much stamina and coordination it actually takes to perform such a relatively tedious task of whisking constantly for a few minutes. If your arm or shoulder gives in after a few minutes, don’t be ashamed to switch to a hand mixer or similar. It’s quite okay, and a hell of a lot easier. If you’re male, though, and women are watching… Suck it up! (I’m kidding, of course!)
Do not mix hot and cold: The second most common reason for an emulsified sauce splitting is a difference in temperature between ingredients. If you want to take out a little extra anti-splitting insurance, make sure that your ingredients are roughly the same temperature as you mix them. Don’t add warm fat to cold egg yolks or vice versa. (Incidentally, this is a great tip for mayonnaise as well!). When making Bearnaise, keep in mind that clarified butter starts to set at room temperature and will set completely in the fridge, so it only makes sense to warm it slightly before adding it to the egg yolks – to ease the pouring. Consequently, it also makes sense to whisk your egg yolks over the heat for a few minutes before adding the butter, to make sure they’re up to temperature as well. Keep this rule in mind when making mayonnaise. Do not add ice cold oil to room temperature eggs, or room temperature oil to eggs just out of the fridge, this knowledge will set you free and save you many tears!
Back down the heat: Egg yolks start to curdle at 62 degrees celcius and curdling will destroy the texture of the sauce. When making Sauce Bearnaise over direct heat, use the lowest possible setting on your burner and take your time. Or use a double boiler which buys you a little extra insurance.
It’s NOT a crime to serve Bearnaise luke-warm: It’s a popular misconception that Bearnaise should be served hot. This may be owing to the fact that the general population are mostly familiar with industrial Bearnaises made of fat, artificial emulsifiers and very little egg. Unlike revenge, Bearnaise is not a dish best served cold, but it shouldn’t be steaming either. As mentioned above, eggs curdle at 62 degrees, that should give you some indication of the proper serving temperature of a real Bearnaise.
Go on, then, please…?
Well, there you go, then. My take on what Bearnaise could be and should be. I honestly hope you’ll give it a try! And, alright, listen, I’m sorry if I yelled at you earlier and said some pretty harsh things. The thing is, I know we’re all busy and have a ton of things to do, aside from cooking dinner. But I also know we’re a lot better than store-bought ready to eat sauces and foods, and that we deserve a lot better than store-bought ready to eat food… And with only a little planning, a bit of practice and a bit of dare do attitude, we can have a proper home-cooked meal in next to no time, even if said meal, hypothetically speaking, were to include major, French culinary inventions such as Sauce Béarnaise.
I’m not saying you should pull out home-made Bearnaise on a Monday evening, I’m just saying that should you want to, and had you planned ahead, it could be done. As could so many other exciting things that didn’t come ready-made or semi-ready-made out of a box or plastic container… Think about it, won’t you?
What’s your ready-made guilty pleasure? I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours!