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 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!