A few months ago, when I first conceived of Sauce Week, I set out to make a dinner for myself that promised to be so outrageously decadent, I’d have to close my blinds before eating the first forkful. The premise was pretty basic–steak and potatoes–with one key difference. I was going to drench the whole thing in that most indulgent of French sauces, a sauce that contains more butter than most people eat in a month, yet a sauce so rich and sultry it’s pretty much the height of sophistication and elegance: I’m talking, of course, about Sauce Béarnaise.
I knew how to handle the steak and potatoes. The potatoes, Yukon Golds, were sliced in half or quarters, tossed with olive oil, whole garlic cloves, salt, and pepper on a cookie sheet and then popped into a 425 oven. Every so often, I’d toss them around; until they were crisp on the outside and soft on the inside, for about an hour.
The steak–a rib-eye, purchased from McCall’s–would be prepared the way I learned how to do it in this video. Pour a little vegetable oil into a cast iron skillet, crank the heat to high and when it’s blazingly hot and the oil is just starting to smoke, take your room temperature steak–which you’ve coated with lots of salt and coarsely ground pepper–and carefully lay it in. You should hear a loud sizzle. Let it cook on that side for 2 minutes or so, then carefully flip it over (it should be golden brown and beautifully seared; if not, keep cooking), add a pat of butter, a few cloves of garlic (in their skin) and a few sprigs of thyme. Pop the whole thing into a 475 oven and allow the steak to finish, another minute or two, until pressing it in the center yields the same way your hand yields when you make a fist and press the area between your thumb and index finger. That’s medium rare.
I make a really good steak but we’re not here to talk about the steak. We’re here to talk about the sauce. And to make my Sauce Béarnaise, I turned to the only place a sane person would turn to make anything French: Julia Child’s Mastering The Art of French Cooking. Her version, the classical version, begins by boiling vinegar, wine, shallots, tarragon, salt and pepper together until reduced to 2 tablespoons.
You beat 3 egg yolks until they’re thick:
Then you strain in the vinegar mixture and continue to beat:
Things get tricky here: over low heat (I used a double boiler) you add 1 tablespoon of cold butter, then another tablespoon of cold butter, then 1/2 to 2/3 cups of melted butter by droplets.
Things went swimmingly, at first. Look how gorgeous everything is just as I stirred in the tarragon:
I could’ve lied to you and stopped the post here and said, “I’m a champ at making Béarnaise!” But the truth is, right at this moment, the sauce broke. Ugly picture alert:
It’s actually a pretty devastating thing, especially when you’ve spent all that time and energy bringing the sauce together. But Julia has a solution: first, try whisking in a tablespoon of cold water. If that doesn’t work (and it didn’t for me), rinse out a mixing bowl with hot water. Put in a teaspoon of lemon juice (I used vinegar) and a tablespoon of the sauce and whisk them together.
Now beat the rest of the sauce in half a tablespoon at a time, beating until each addition has thickened in the sauce before adding the next. Sayeth Julia: “This always works.” And indeed it does:
Pretty magical, right? And this is what I spooned on top of my steak after slicing it against the grain:
That’s last meal material, right there. In fact, after finishing, I was pretty sure it was my last meal, I was so full. But it was worth it.
Then, a few days ago, we had Valentine’s Day and I decided to recreate this dinner for Craig. This time, I bought a heart-shaped rib-eye from Lindy and Grundy:
I did the potatoes just like before and was gearing up to do the Béarnaise just like before:
When someone turned me on to the technique on Michael Ruhlman’s site. It’s such a foolproof technique, and so much less stressful than the Julia version (sorry, Julia), it’ll now be my go-to technique for Béarnaise. Here’s how it works: in a measuring glass? You add your lemon juice, shallots, salt, pepper and 2 egg yolks and give those a buzz with a hand blender. Meanwhile, you melt 6 ounces of salted butter:
When the butter is fully melted and hot, you add it–in a steady stream–to the measuring glass while making your hand blender buzz, adding tarragon halfway through. Look how amazing:
I mean, really. Béarnaise in a manner of seconds. Here it is, served in a ramekin, alongside Friday’s steak and potatoes:
Craig was one happy customer, and who wouldn’t be? Sauce Béarnaise is the king bee of rich, creamy, classical French sauces; capable of turning a humdrum steak dinner into a black-tie affair. That’s the power of sauce.
[I’m going to type up Julia’s recipe, but if you want to follow the easier Ruhlman technique, click here.]
Recipe: Julia Child’s Sauce Béarnaise
Summary: From Mastering The Art of French Cooking.
- 1/4 cup wine vinegar
- 1/4 cup dry white wine or dry white vermouth
- 1 tablespoon minced shallots or green onions
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh tarragon PLUS 2 tablespoons minced tarragon to finish
- 1/8 teaspoon pepper
- Pinch of salt
- 3 egg yolks
- 2 tablespoons cold butter
- 1/2 to 2/3 cup melted butter
- Boil the vinegar, wine, shallots, 1 tablespoon tarragon and seasonings over moderate heat until the liquid has reduced to 2 tablespoons. Let it cool.
- Then proceed as though making a hollandaise. Beat the egg yolks until thick. Strain in the vinegar mixture and beat. Add 1 tablespoon of cold butter and thicken the egg yolks over low heat (I recommend using a double boiler). Beat in the other tablespoon of cold butter, then the melted butter by droplets. Correct seasoning and beat in the tarragon or parsley. Serve immediately.
Preparation time: 10 minute(s)
Cooking time: 10 minute(s)
Number of servings (yield): 4