As early as the first century, people began applying sauces to their foods. Although the term "sauce" has its roots in French cuisine, it is known that early Romans employed them to make their food more appetizing. Whether it be to mask the smell or appearance of possibly spoiled meats and fish or just as a tasty addition to the meal at hand, sauces have played a big part in the culinary development of numerous cultures. Most sauces fall into one of three categories: Emulsions, Reductions, and Deglazes. Classically speaking, the French recognize five distinct sauces as "mother sauces," or sauce bases, that lay the foundation for other more elaborate concoctions. Perhaps the most influential of these is the hollandaise.
Hollandaise is a butter sauce that has been thickened by way of emulsification, using egg yolks as the thickener and lemon juice for seasoning. For our purposes, I will give a basic Hollandaise recipe and then offer variations upon the theme to create new and exciting taste sensations! As always, get your ingredients and equipment ready: The French idea of mise en place (setting in place) is essential to all forms of cooking. It's much easier to succeed in the kitchen if you can focus on the task at hand rather than searching around for the right whisk or extra butter. Get your ingredients set before you even turn the stove on. For hollandaise, we will need a few ingredients, so go get this stuff ready:
- Double boiler or small saucepan of simmering water with a metal bowl nested inside
- 1 teaspoon water
- 3 egg yolks
- 3/4 cup unsalted butter cut into cubes (that's 12 tablespoons or 1.5 sticks)
- 1/2 teaspoon salt (preferably kosher)
- 2 teaspoons lemon juice (preferably fresh squeezed)
- Pinch cayenne or 1/2 teaspoon of hot sauce (optional)
Considerations: I think it's helpful to understand a goal before trying to attain it. Hollandaise sauce, although technically a cooked sauce, isn't cooked thoroughly. We are going to warm the egg yolks carefully over simmering water just enough to ensure the butter melts. We are not looking to boil the mixture at any time. Make sure the bowl never makes contact with the simmering water. We want the steam from the water to heat the bowl, not the water itself. If the sauce gets too hot, we'll have scrambled eggs, not hollandaise sauce.
- Fill your double boiler or small saucepan with about an inch of water. Bring it to a boil and then reduce the heat to a bare simmer. Although a double boiler works for this, I prefer the "bowl over the boil" approach. Do not put the bowl or top boiler on yet.
- Off the heat, combine the water and yolks. Whisk well until the mixture lightens to a lemonlike color, about 2 minutes.
- Place the egg mixture over the simmering water and whisk constantly until thickened slightly, about 4 minutes. You know the sauce is ready for the butter when it coats the back of a metal spoon.
- Take the bowl off the saucepan and add the butter gradually, whisking all the time. Only add more butter after the previous addition has been absorbed.
- If the mixture gets too cool, put it back on top of the simmering water and warm it enough so the butter will melt.
- When all of the butter has been incorporated, add the remaining ingredients and serve.
Now that we have about a cup and a half of hollandaise, what do we do with it? Although we can serve it as is (hollandaise is the only mother sauce that ever gets served as is), this sauce can benefit from some alterations. Let's look at some descendants of hollandaise and see how they differ.
- Maltaise - Add 1 tablespoon orange juice and 1 teaspoon orange zest after the butter has been absorbed and return to the heat. Cook until thickened.
- Mousseline - Add about 1/2 cup of cream after the butter has been absorbed and return to the heat. Cook until thickened.
- Mikado - Use the same procedure as Maltaise, but use tangerines instead.
- Mustard - Simply add about a tablespoon of dijon or your favorite mustard at the end.
- Béarnaise - Substitute vinegar for the water and add minced, sweated shallots and tarragon at the end. Bernaise is what I would call a "daughter sauce" because it can be altered further to make even more sauces! If we use mint instead of tarragon, we have Paloise. If we added a bit of demiglace or some veal stock that has been reduced down to a syrup at the end, then we have made a Valois. Add a tablespoon of tomato paste and we have a Choron.
It is truly amazing what can be done with a few eggs, some butter, a pinch of salt and a lemon. When people think of hollandaise sauce, there is this notion that it must be some complicated culinary accomplishment reserved for Michelin star chefs only. In truth, this sauce (and all of its descendants) is easy to prepare and relatively simple to master. Once you give homemade hollandaise a try, I guarantee you will never buy one of those powdered packets again. Believe me, your eggs Benedict, your asparagus, and your filet mignon will thank you for it.