Emulsified sauces are one part chemistry, one part culinary magic. Take two ingredients which, “like oil and water”, should not blend together, and with a little effort, they become one delicious whole.
An emulsified sauce is literally the blending of fat (butter or oil) and water (wine, vinegar or egg yolk- which is more than 50% water). Combine them together with heat, centrifugal force, or just a vigorous whisk and you suddenly have one sauce where there were once two separate ingredients which typically do not play well together.
The scientific term for this refusal to mix is “immiscible” which is defined as two liquids that are incapable of being mixed, caused by surface tension between two molecules. However, when it comes to emulsified sauces, there are other forces at play (heat and/or movement) which will cause one part to incorporate into the other.
The best known emulsified sauces are hollandaise or mayonnaise. They are what are considered permanent emulsions. Once blended, the sauce stays that way unless it breaks due to an outside force such as high temperature or an inaccurate ratio of the two main ingredients (fat and liquid). Other emulsified sauces are a “temporary emulsion” like the vinaigrette. Without any artificial thickeners, a vinaigrette will combine when whisked or shaken and then once it settles it will separate into oil and water. My personal “house dressing” is a pesto vinaigrette. There is always have a jar of this in our refrigerator.
Almost all emulsified sauces share three things which make them the perfect complement to the main dish; fat, acid and salt. The fat, be it butter or oil, gives a rich texture to the sauce. The acid, typically lemon juice or vinegar, offers a piquant counterpoint to the fat, and salt opens the taste buds to enhance all the flavors.
The five ingredients of Hollandaise
The internet abounds with “easy” hollandaise recipes. Many of them involve a blender. Yes, you can do it this way, but there is a certain satisfaction in making something the old fashioned way with just a bowl, a whisk and five simple ingredients. The ability to make a classic hollandaise is a skill every cook should have in their repertoire. There’s nothing wrong with using a blender, but give the traditional way a try.
Hollandaise is considered one of the five “mother” sauces (Béchamel, Hollandaise, Espanol, Tomato and Veloute) from which most other sauces derive. For example, Bernaise sauce is the most common sauce derived from Hollandaise. It’s basically Hollandaise with the acid ingredient (vinegar or lemon juice) replaced by a strained reduction of vinegar, shallots, and fresh tarragon, and is most often served with grilled steak.
There are several theories as to the origin of Hollandaise sauce. The first is that it started in Normandy which is the dairy capital of France. During World War 1, dairy production stalled and much of the butter had to be imported from Holland. Since the base of the sauce is butter, the name indicated the origin of the butter. Another option is that the sauce came from Holland in the form of a custard, thinned and smoothed with melted butter.
Many people are afraid of the sauce breaking. High heat is the enemy, as is too much butter. A broken Hollandaise can happen when the eggs get too hot and begin to curdle, or if too much melted butter is whisked into the egg suspension. Each egg yolk can only suspend 4-6 tablespoons of butter, though sometimes larger batches can hold a bit more. A broken sauce can be rescued with a bit of cold water (see the recipe below).
Traditional uses for Hollandaise include on eggs benedict, or with vegetables like asparagus and artichokes, or on poached fish.
Do you make hollandaise from scratch? If not, what do you do? Do you make any other emulsified sauces? Which are your favorites? I’ll be showing you how to make mayonnaise next!
- 3 large egg yolks
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice (or white wine vinegar)
- 2 sticks butter, clarified (or melted)
- .5 teaspoon kosher salt
- pepper (white pepper, dash of tabasco or cayenne pepper)
- Melt the butter. If you want to use clarified butter, skim off the fat solids which rise to the top when the butter is melted.
- Melted butter yields a more flavorful sauce but clarified butter will give a thicker, stiffer sauce which may be more resistant to breaking.
- Bring about 2 inches of water to a low simmer in a medium sized sauce pot. Place a large heat proof bowl over the simmering water. The bowl should fit snugly, but the bottom should not touch the water.
- Add the egg yolks and the lemon juice to the bowl off the heat and whisk them rapidly they become pale yellow and begin to thicken (about 20-30 seconds).
- Place the bowl over the hot water. If you are using a metal bowl which might get hot very quickly, you may want to turn off the heat under the water. If you are using a thick bowl or a heavy double boiler, turn the heat down to very low.
- Slowly whisk in the warm clarified or melted butter, about 1 tablespoon at a time, until the butter is suspended in the egg yolks.
- Whisk in the salt and pepper
- The sauce should be thick, but not lumpy. It should drizzle off a spoon, not be as thick as pudding. If it’s too thick, whisk in a bit of water, a teaspoon at a time.
- The sauce can be held warm for about an hour over a warm pot of water.
How to rescue “broken” hollandaise:
- In a clean bowl, add a tablespoon of cold water. Whisk in a small amount of the broken hollandaise. Slowly add in the rest of the hollandaise, whisking briskly until it is all emulsified. The hollandaise will appear lighter in color once it has water added to it.
- Bernaise- replace the lemon juice with a strained reduction of vinegar, shallots, and fresh tarragon.
- Dijon Hollandaise- add a tablespoon of Dijon mustard, whisked in with the egg yolks at the beginning. This can help stabilized the sauce and keep it emulsified.
- Sauce Noisette made with browned butter instead of clarified butter