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Beurre Blanc is Butter Sauce for Adults, a Blessing

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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!

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Beurre blanc looking elegant over roasted vegetables.
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.

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Can you name identify the five French mother sauces?
Can you name identify 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.

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Julia Child's Beurre Blanc (White Butter Sauce)

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Makes 1 1/2 cups
  • 3 sticks cold unsalted butter (24 tablespoons), cut into tablespoon-sized chunks
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine
  • 1/4 cup white wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon minced shallots
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 pinch white pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

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!

Tags: beurre blanc, butter, butter sauce