Ahh, classic cuisine française–how utterly uninteresting you are! How dépassée! How démodée! In this century we want lighter, cleaner dishes, with fresh pure flavors unmasked by fatty sauces and starchy sides. Seasonal, local produce! Farm-to-table! We want natural savors complimented and heightened, not obscured or modified.
Actually, counter to its reputation for being overly-rich and extravagantly prone to animal protein, French cuisine has been exactly the above (fresh, clean, modern) for quite a while now. This is just as true for people’s daily meals as it is for chef’s menus. There’s huge emphasis on shopping for fresh seasonal produce at the farmer’s market (every city and village has one), flavoring in the form of fresh garden-grown herbs, and eating well (indulgently, with pleasure) but lightly, in small quantities. Food writers say that the new culinary center is the United States (that is, American food writers say this . . .)–I can’t speak for fine dining crowds, but France has the U.S. beat by a long shot when it comes to people cultivating an appreciation for food–and actually knowing how to cook–and actually knowing what foods are–etc.
Hence béarnaise sauce, while quite rich, and sufficiently heavy, is still delicious and utterly enjoyable in our modern age, especially with a plate of freshly steamed asparagus.
This technique for making béarnaise sauce is very simple and practically foolproof. I’m not one for stringent culinary techniques, and I can make this sauce in about fifteen minutes. The traditional method, which you will see in many classic cookbooks, is to gradually stir in melted butter to the yolk-shallot reduction mixture–but this is risky, as the sauce may overheat and separate, and then everything would be ruined. A much safer way is to gradually incorporate chilled butter cubes, which will keep down the temperature of the sauce. To heat the sauce up again before serving, simply place it back on the gently boiling bain marie (and whisk! never stop whisking!).
Of course it goes without saying that the better butter you buy, the better your béarnaise will be (can you say that three times fast?). The French take their butter very seriously–for good reason. Sweet cream butter, as we are resigned to in most grocery stores in the States, just isn’t punchy enough for me. Do your best with what you have, I suppose; I think I read in Cook’s Illustrated that Land O’ Lakes brand got their highest taste test rating.
- 2 shallots, minced
- 2 Tbsp (about 1/2 a bunch) fresh tarragon, chopped finely
- ¼ cup (5 cl) vinegar (white wine vinegar or balsamic, for example)
- cracked black pepper
- sea salt or kosher salt
- 5 egg yolks
- 2 sticks (1/2 cup, or 250g) cold butter, cut into small cubes
- In a saucepan, sweat the minced shallots for a minute or two, then add half the chopped tarragon (1 Tbsp), vinegar, and cracked black pepper. Cook over medium-low heat until fully reduced, meaning no liquid is left.
- Put egg yolks in a metal or heat-safe glass bowl, add vinegar shallot reduction, and whisk together. Place over a bain marie (put the metal bowl over a pot of gently boiling water so that the bottom of the bowl does not touch the boiling water). Whisk and watch. Just when you see the yolk mixture begin to thicken, remove from heat. Be patient and keep whisking—this can take anywhere from a minute to several minutes. You’ll know when the thickening starts to happen; until then, keep whisking.
- Still whisking, add a few cold butter cubes. When fully incorporated, add more cubes. Little by little, add and incorporate butter cubes. If the sauce becomes sluggish, return to the bain marie for a short time (still whisking!). Keep on until all the butter is incorporated into the sauce.
- Add salt to taste and more pepper, if necessary. Add the remaining 1 Tbsp of fresh tarragon. Serve with steamed vegetables, steak, fish, potatoes, or anything really.
NOTE: Have you noticed that this sauce is remarkably similar to Hollandaise sauce? And like Hollandaise sauce, it is best eaten immediately, as it could separate at any moment. Can be enjoyed both hot and cold.