Sauce It Up!
Two Classics – Hollandaise and Béarnaise
Reading Time: 5 minutes
Imagine Sunday brunch without Eggs Benedict on the menu. One might as well tell restaurant patrons there’s no coffee at breakfast. It’s something people expect and appreciate when dining out in the morning, slicing into crisp toasted English muffins, thick rounds of Canadian bacon, and perfectly poached eggs topped with a rich and silky buttery sauce with a hint of fresh lemon juice and a sprinkle of chopped chives. The comforting taste and texture has fans around the world filling their plates and asking for more. Three cheers to a classic dish that’s here to stay!
The Five ‘Mother’ Sauces
Melding it all together is Hollandaise, one of the five “mother sauces” in French cuisine that chefs hold in high esteem: Béchamel, a traditional white sauce that gives chicken pot pies its creamy texture, Velouté, French for velvet – a light sauce for steamed fish; Espagnole, a hearty dark brown sauce for meat dishes, and Tomate, similar to Italian tomato sauce. Stemming from these traditional recipes are daughter or small sauces that create a long list of additional accompaniments that enhance the flavor of savory dishes.
Like many beginnings, there are different variations of when a specific food first appeared. Hollandaise sauce, originally was called Sauce Isigny, named after Isigny-sur-Mer, a village famous for its butter and cream in Normandy, France. It was also called Dutch sauce during World War I when the dairy industry in Normandy was shut down, resulting in the need for chefs and grocers to import Dutch butter. History also mentions the sauce during the late 1600’s when Huguenots, a religious group of French protestants, returned to their homeland from exile in the Dutch Republic. They described it as a creamy mixture thickened with eggs, similar to a savory custard, with a bit of butter beaten in to smooth the texture.
The first written mention of Hollandaise sauce dates back to 1651 when chef Francois Pierre Varenne included a recipe in his famous cookbook, Le Cuisinier Francois, for fresh asparagus served with a delicate emulsion of egg yolks, melted butter, and lemon juice, taking care not to curdle the mixture on the stove.
Making Hollandaise is relatively easy, whisking together the ingredients and cooking it until a smooth consistency appears. As always, there are different variations of the recipe, depending on who’s preparing it when adding the sauce to Eggs Benedict, poached salmon, baked cod and other fish, or steamed broccoli and asparagus. Here’s a basic recipe:
- 4 egg yolks
- ½ cup unsalted melted butter (one stick)
- 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice or white wine vinegar
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- Pinch white pepper
- Pinch cayenne pepper – optional
- Chopped chives for garnish
- Vigorously whisk the egg yolks and lemon juice together in a stainless-steel bowl until the mixture is thickened and doubled in volume.
- Place the bowl over a saucepan or use a double boiler with barely simmering water. Continue to whisk rapidly; be careful not to let the eggs get too hot or they will scramble.
- Slowly add the melted butter until the mixture is thickened and doubles in volume again.
- Remove from the heat and add the salt, pepper and cayenne.
- Cover and place in a warm spot until ready to pour. If the sauce gets too thick, whisk in a few drops of warm water before serving.
- Garnish with chopped chives.
Joining the family tree, Béarnaise sauce is often called the offspring of Hollandaise, starting out with similar ingredients—an emulsion of egg yolks and butter. The difference lies instead of adding lemon juice or white wine vinegar, Béarnaise calls for shallots, chervil (French parsley), tarragon, and crushed peppercorns in a reduction of white wine and white wine vinegar. The end result is a smooth and creamy sauce with flecks of green that brings rave reviews when drizzled over a juicy steak or lamp chops. It’s also delicious when paired with other entrees such as salmon, halibut, lobster and scallops, and it’s a delicious addition to steamed or grilled vegetables. Some fans like to use it as a condiment on hamburgers and roast beef, steak, ham or chicken sandwiches.
Another favorite is the Croque-Madame, a ham and Gruyère cheese sandwich where sourdough bread is traditionally spread with Bechamel sauce (made with roux and milk) but food aficionados like to take it up a notch by substituting the tame concoction with the savory Béarnaise.
After a bit of time under the broiler, the sandwich is topped with a fried egg. Some versions call for dipping and grilling the bread in an egg and milk batter, similar to a Monte Cristo sandwich. The Croque-Madame is related to the Croque-Monsieur, a classic grilled cheese sandwich served in bars and cafes in France. Croque /croquer is French for to crunch or bite.
Legend has it that the savory sauce was first whisked up by chef Jean-Louise Francoise Collinet in 1837 at the Le Pavillon Henri IV Hotel in Saint-Germaine-en-Laye, a suburb of Paris. Collinet named his creation in honor of King Henri IV who reigned the country from 1399 to 1413. The great military leader was from the province of Béarn, located in the Pyrenees mountains. Béarnaise translates to mean “from Béarn.
- 1/2 cup white wine
- 1/4 cup white wine or Champagne vinegar
- 3 sprigs chervil finely minced – reserve stems
- 3 sprigs tarragon, finely minced – reserve stems
- 1 small shallot, thinly sliced
- 1/2 teaspoon whole crushed peppercorns or freshly ground black pepper
- 2 large egg yolks
- dash of salt
- 1-1/2 (12 tablespoons) unsalted melted butter
- Combine wine, vinegar, herb stems, shallots, and peppercorns in a small saucepan. Cook on a medium-low heat for 10 to 15 minutes where the liquid has reduced by about half. Strain and put the liquid back in the saucepan. Let cool to room temperature.
- Add the egg yolks and salt to the reduction liquid, and cook over a medium-low heat while whisking vigorously until the eggs are a fluffy, custard-like consistency….about three to five minutes. Be sure not to overcook.
- When the sauce thickens and reaches the desired consistency, add in the melted butter, chervil and tarragon chopped leaves, whisking until the butter dissolves.
Béarnaise sauce is best served immediately.
Whether it’s a leisurely Sunday breakfast at a favorite restaurant, or grilling up some steaks and vegetables in the backyard, adding Hollandaise or Béarnaise sauce to the menu can turn the ordinary into something extraordinary. It can be homemade or store-bought; there’s just something about the distinct taste of each sauce that has family and friends asking for more.
Vive la France!
Originally published in the August/September 2022 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.