Beurre Blanc is Butter Sauce for Adults, a Blessing

December 17, 2015

As an editorial team, we distinguish, often, between "home-cooked" and "cheff-y," the latter being foods like "black trumpet mushroom duxelle," "sauce albufera," and "Castelmagno 'mousseline'" (all examples from the Per Se menu), along with all sorts of emulsions, coulis, gelées, foams, infusions, reductions, and canapés.

When I first saw "beurre blanc" on the menu of Charleston restaurant in Baltimore, I immediately assumed it fell within the cheffy parameters. It hit all the marks: (1) a member of a collection of mysterious sauces (see albufera and mousseline); (2) a French name that makes you sound either silly or snooty whilst pronouncing; and (3) real estate next to "oyster and button mushroom fricasé" and a minimally-styled menu. Et voilà!

Beurre blanc looking elegant over roasted vegetables. Photo by Mark Weinberg

But when my dish came to the table—pan-fried turbot (which, disconcertingly, looks like this) on top of creamy yet crispy sautéed mushrooms and a pool of rich, lemony yellow sauce—I abandoned my confusion over its name and its components. All I cared about was making sure the silky butter made it onto every piece of fish and every mushroom on my plate.

And, lucky for me, beurre blanc isn't so snooty after all. "However marvelous its flavor," wrote Julia Child in Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home, "it is a butter sauce."

A classic sauce from Brittany, it looks like hollandaise "when you spoon it over your beautifully poached fish, but it is only warm flavored butter—butter emulsified, held in suspension by its strongly acid flavor base," explains Julia. White wine is reduced with white wine vinegar and shallots (and some chefs add cream for a stable, smooth sauce), then a whole lot of butter is whisked in slowly, piece by piece, and the mixture is seasoned with lemon juice.

Can you name the five French mother sauces? Photo by James Ransom

Butter sauce with a French name and an air of pretension that makes it more acceptable to eat than actual butter sauce? Count me in.

But beyond that, beurre blanc is also better than the "butter sauce" (that is, melted butter) I used to toss with spaghetti. As Francis Lam explains:

You make this sauce with enough tart ingredients to counteract the richness of the fat, so that it plays a trick on your tongue, where you can taste both but neither dominates.

It's a gentle dip into the rich, fatty flavors rather than a violent plunge into grease, and it's a cheffy-esque condiment with real-life applications: Use anywhere you'd like to drizzle food with (or drown it in) better-tasting butter: on roasted or steamed vegetables, on shrimp or fish, on chicken, or, if you really are cheffy, on lobster or truffles.

And once you've mastered the basics, Lam has some suggestions for taking your beurre blanc game up a notch: Start with red wine instead of white (this will make even fancier-sounding beurre rouge); use a fruit juice mixed with an aged vinegar; finish the sauce with herbs or spices or mashed anchovies.

Would you actually make beurre blanc at home, or is it best reserved for restaurants? Tell us in the comments!


Lisa P. September 24, 2018
Do it all the time
Dave December 20, 2015
ooopppsss, sorry, forgot to add in at the start, but of course , deglaze the pan first with Fume Blanc! Then proceed as written below......... >
Dave December 20, 2015
Cut a semi thin slice of lemon, and then cut from the center of the slice out into triangle shapes, or mini wedges, as if you were cutting a piece of pie. Sear some trout, as you know, this fish doesn't take long to cook!, set aside on a hot plate. In the same pan you just seared the Trout in, saute' / add the little tiny pieces of pie shaped lemon, rind and pulp, add a little extra lemon juice, maybe about 1 T., add, 1/2 - 1 T. of Balsamic infused Capers, pinch of chopped parsley or Chervil, pinch of Celtic salt, pinch of white pepper, turn down heat to less than a simmer, then start adding in unsalted butter pieces, 2-3 T. , more or less until it thickens into the sauce, and swirl them into the reduction as they not boil! Pour immediately over the trout. Bon appetite!
Sadie K. December 20, 2015
We call beurre blanc the humpty dumpty sauce. It is butter turned back to cream. Kendall Farms Creme Fraiche is easier. It is already a bullet-proof sauce without the work. And it will never, ever break. beurre blanc is a bit edgy.<br /><br />Sadie Kendall
kgw December 20, 2015
I'm all about home cookin'! /-]
cv December 17, 2015
Using the criterion that anything with a French name is "cheffy" is silly. That's their language, that's what they call it.<br /><br />Even if when a French name is used here in the United States (or elsewhere), it doesn't automatically imply that the item is "cheffy" or that it is only used in fancy restaurants. <br /><br />Do Americans find the word baguette "cheffy"?<br /><br />Beurre blanc is simply a name for a specific butter sauce executed in a manner than was codified by French food writers. It's not particularly "cheffy" in the way that "ramen" is just noodles in Japanese or fettuccine Alfredo is a particular pasta dish.<br /><br />Anyhow, beurre blanc has been made longer (in many areas) than the restaurants have been fashionable. It certainly wasn't invented by a chef. <br /><br />Using butter as a sauce emulsifier has been going on for centuries.
Author Comment
Sarah J. December 17, 2015
Yep, it's not cheffy—just something I perceived as cheffy before I knew what it was!
Ryan P. December 17, 2015
BUERRRREE its cold outside and this makes me want to eat some warm pasta.
Samantha W. December 17, 2015
I love this post and the photo!
Thom D. December 17, 2015
I have been making beurre blanc and beurre rouge sauces for years and have found them not only very tasty but it is easy to manipulate their flavors.
Author Comment
Sarah J. December 17, 2015
What do you like to add?
Thom D. December 17, 2015
I use citrus zest mainly lemon and orange which is wonderful with a pan seared fish. A little tarragon in a beurre blanc over chicken also works very nice.