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In the previous edition of “Food for Thought” we discussed the controversial origins of eggs Benedict, its ingredients, and the nuances of poaching eggs. But even more challenging is preparing the dish’s pièce de résistance, that unctuous yet vexing archetype of French haute cuisine: hollandaise sauce.
Hollandaise is one of the “mother” sauces of French cuisine, i.e., a primary sauce from which other sauces are derived. It is made by simultaneously whisking and heating egg yolks, lemon juice, and a little water and then slowly blending in butter until a creamy and rich sauce is produced. It is seasoned with salt and sometimes black or red pepper. It is decadently delicious and pairs well with eggs, steak, fish and vegetables.
The first recorded hollandaise sauce was published in France in the 1600’s but undoubtedly it existed for some time before that. There are a variety of explanations for how the sauce was named; the common denominator being the rich butter and dairy products that Holland was famous for.
Hollandaise is the minefield of the culinary world. Step a little out of line and it blows up in your face. Here’s what you’re up against:
Problem #1: Heating the egg yolks without scrambling them.
The immediate challenge when making hollandaise is cooking the egg yolks without scrambling them. Heating the egg yolks thickens them which adds body to the sauce and facilitates the forthcoming emulsion. If you’re paranoid about salmonella in eggs, (which according to the USDA is present in only one in 20,000), heating them to 160 degrees will dispel the last vestiges of those odds. But, eggs will coagulate, (meaning you’ll make scrambled eggs) at 160 to 170 degrees. So what do you do?
Solution: Lemon juice, mild controlled heat, and incessant whisking.
In addition to adding a tangy flavor, the acid in the lemon juice is our insurance policy. Acids inhibit proteins from coalescing, to a point. It encourages the protein chains to unwind without balling up into curds. Ergo, combining the lemon juice and egg yolks from the get-go will allow the eggs to be cooked up to 195 degrees before coagulating. Nevertheless, the thermal trip from properly cooked to scrambled eggs is still very short and very perilous. You need gentle heat that is easily regulated.
Hollandaise is made in a double boiler, i.e., the egg yolks are placed in a stainless steel bowl which rests on top of a sauce pan containing barely simmering water. Notice “barely simmering.” All you need is a little bit of steam escaping from the water. The water must NOT touch the bottom of the bowl directly. This setup also allows you to quickly remove the bowl from the heat if things get too hot. Some chefs place a dish towel between the pan and the bowl. This tempers the heat further but also provides the bowl with stability so that it doesn’t spin during the whisking. Speaking of which, thorough and non-stop whisking allows for even distribution of the heat, thus preventing localized hot spots which will produce isolated bits of scrambled eggs.
Place a stainless steel bowl over a pan of barely simmering water. Add the egg yolks, lemon juice and water to the bowl. Begin whisking and never look back. Whisk the yolks until they become thick and frothy and no more. When they reach this point you will see “ribbons,” i.e., trails in the yolks left by the whisk. Along the way occasionally remove the bowl from the heat to prevent over-heating. Take your time and err on the side of less heat. If you scramble the eggs it’s game over.
Problem #2: Maintaining the emulsion.
Hollandaise is an emulsified sauce. An emulsion is a blending of oil or some other form of fat and a water based liquid, whereby tiny droplets of the one are dispersed in the other. The problem with emulsions is their constituents are resistant to intermingling. Oil and water do not mix. Once brought together their chemical properties exert notable effort to separate and recombine into their component parts. If they do, the sauce has “broken.” Thus, one of the challenges in making a successful hollandaise is thoroughly incorporating the butter into the egg yolks without it separating or breaking.
Solution: Water, gradual addition of the butter, limited heat, and incessant whisking.
If enough H20 is not present, the emulsion will not form. After all, an emulsion is the marriage of fat and water. Some of the water comes from the lemon juice but this may not be enough. Inevitably some water will evaporate while cooking the yolks. Take out additional insurance and add a little water to the eggs and lemon juice at the beginning.
Gradually add the warm (not hot), melted butter, and I cannot emphasize the word “gradually” enough. A thin stream, particularly at the onset is vital. Introduce the butter too suddenly and you will inundate the liquid and compromise the emulsion.
Some chefs maintain the heat during the incorporation of the butter. Others turn off the heat at this point. I favor the latter. You’ve already cooked the eggs. Why risk breaking the emulsion with too much heat? The residual heat left in the pan should be plenty.
As already explained, the ceaseless whisking keeps the heat evenly distributed. But here the whisking is performing another function as well: the mechanical action of the whisk breaks down the butter into smaller and smaller globules, thus producing a thicker, better integrated, and more stable emulsion.
Once the egg yolks reach the ribbon stage, turn off the heat and remove the bowl for a moment. Return it to the pan and slowly drizzle in the melted butter constantly whisking. If at any point it looks like the sauce is breaking, (as evidenced by oily melted butter forming around the edge or on top of the sauce), immediately remove the pan from the heat, add a small splash of cold water and whisk like mad. Some chefs even keep a larger bowl of ice water on hand to plunge the first bowl into in order to drop the temperature quickly. When you’ve reincorporated the separated butter return the bowl to the double boiler and continue whisking in the remaining butter.
Problem #3: Clarified or whole butter?
Solution: Depends on your goals
Virtually all chefs employ unsalted butter. The disagreement begins with whether it should be whole or clarified. Despite the dogmatic nature of opinions, there is no right or wrong answer. Whole butter is 15% water. It will produce a thinner sauce than clarified butter which is pure butterfat. But the water also provides some emulsification enhancement. Whole butter also includes the milk solids which contain flavor. Thus, whole butter 1) saves you the step of having to clarify the butter, 2) provides some emulsion-facilitating water, and 3) has more flavor. But, as stated, the clarified butter will render a thicker sauce. It boils down to the nature of the sauce you desire. If you go the clarified route, compensate by adding more water at the beginning with the eggs.
If using whole butter add 1 tablespoon water to the egg yolks; a little more if using less lemon. If using clarified, employ four oz. of water.
Problem #4: How much butter and how many egg yolks?
Solution: Get ready for another debate. I reviewed four culinary texts and the recipes of four other chefs. All eight sources had different formulas for the butter-to-egg ratio. Interestingly, when I averaged the eight ratios I derived the same ratio as published in “Cooking Essentials” the culinary textbook of the Culinary Institute of America (1997): 2.7 to 1. Thus, use 1 lb of whole butter or 12 oz. of clarified butter for 6 eggs. (One pound of butter reduces to 12 oz. when clarified).
Problem #5: How much lemon juice?
Solution: The amount of lemon juice also varies widely amongst recipes. To some degree it’s up to your personal taste. By the book, a balanced hollandaise is not dominated by, but rather accentuated by the lemon. I would start with 1-2 tablespoons. You can always whisk in more at the end when you’re checking for final seasoning. The salt, cayenne and/or black pepper are added to taste at the end once all the butter is incorporated. Some chefs also strain the finished product through cheesecloth to catch any tiny pieces of coagulated egg and produce a silky texture.
Hollandaise can be tricky to store without breaking. It must be kept warm but not too hot. But that’s more of a restaurant problem. At home, just serve it immediately and avoid any additional complications.
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