Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for taking a few culinary ‘shortcuts’, as long as it doesn’t sacrifice quality or freshness. I’m not running a fine dining establishment here. I’m running a home, with two very small and busy masters at my heels. I buy my French bread far more often that I make it. I rarely cook my own stock. I never pick my own crab meat. But, there are a few things that I’m a little stubborn about. Hollandaise sauce is one of those things. I don’t make hollandaise sauce very often; a few times a year, at most. I definitely don’t make it often enough to be really proficient at it. 90% of the time, I fight to keep it from separating. It’s tempting to turn to one of many easy, no-fail hollandaise recipes out there. But, despite my repeated challenges with this buttery-lemony sauce, I insist upon making it the traditional way. I figure that I’ll never get good at it if I don’t practice when I have the opportunity.
Hollandaise is a finicky sauce. Essentially, it involves creating and maintaining two separate emulsions. Forming an emulsion is like joining two parties who don’t want to be together, like oil and water, and coercing them to live together in peaceful harmony. In a hollandaise sauce, the first step involves creating an emulsion of egg yolks with water and lemon juice, called a sabayon (pronounced sa-ba-yawn). In the second step, the sabayon is joined with clarified butter to create a rich, buttery sauce. Cook the eggs a little too long or a little too hot in the first step and you’ll have scrambled eggs. Add the butter too quickly in the second step and the emulsion will separate into a buttery mess. There’s an entire science behind the creation of emulsions in this sauce, but I won’t go there. Suffice it to say, hollandaise is a cruel, cruel mistress; misleadingly simple in some respects, yet so fickle, but so lusciously satisfying.
All that said, making this sauce is doable and definitely worth it. If the sauce breaks, which mine do frequently, it’s usually fixable. Just don’t overcook and curdle the egg yolks. There is no saving a curdled sabayon, other than starting over.
The following step by step guide is adapted from the technique I learned at French Culinary Institute, with a few modifications based on my experience. This recipe will produce about 1 cup of Hollandaise Sauce, which is delicious on Eggs Benedict, over asparagus, seafood, or with steak.
You will need:
- A Saucepan with an inch or two of water
- A Bowl, which is big enough to sit on top of the saucepan
- A Whisk
- 2 Egg Yolks
- 1 Tbsp Lemon Juice
- 1 Tbsp Water
- 5 ounces of warm Clarified Butter
- Cayenne Pepper
If the sauce begins to look like a buttery mess instead of smooth and creamy, then it has broken. Stop adding butter. Try whisking in a few drops of cold water to reestablish the emulsion.