Sauce

Sabayon: The Custardy Italian Sauce You Can Make Without a Recipe

An ode to the inimitable egg and its sweet superpowers.

November 15, 2016
Photo by Ty Mecham

There have been countless pieces written and Instagram photos taken in adoration of the humble egg and all its charms. And rightly so. Slow-cooked soft scrambled eggs, jammy eggs floating in a bowl of ramen, or two fried eggs alongside a side of hash browns are what dreams are made of. Unlike avocado toast or turmeric tea, we can't breezily dismiss the egg as yesterday's unrelenting trend because it brings utility to the table. It is not just a food to be enjoyed unadorned, but a vital tool in the kitchen, transforming things into other things that don't even slightly resemble their original selves.

One dish that couldn't exist without eggs but doesn't get its due is sabayon—zabaione (or zabaglione) to the Italians, who stake claim to its invention. It's a cream sauce that’s traditionally made with wine, egg yolks, and sugar, but sabayon is really more of a concept than a recipe. It doesn't have to be sweet, and you can vary the consistency based on how you intend to use it: as a standalone dessert, a sauce, even a drink. Compared to crema pasticcera, which is a version of Italian pastry cream, sabayon is thinner, silkier, and less sweet.

By whisking together egg yolks and a liquid of your choosing vigorously over heat, you aerate and emulsify, yielding an ephemeral mixture that's part custard and part froth, with a rich underlying flavor. It's like crème anglaise's bubblier, wittier cousin from the land of spaghetti carbonara and bistecca alla fiorentina. But how exactly do you make this Italian treat and how do you use it once it’s ready?

Here's how to make sabayon/zabaglione without a recipe:

1. Pick your liquid.

Zabaglione is traditionally made with wine. You can use a dry white wine (don't overlook something with bubbles!) or opt for a fortified wine like marsala or sherry for more depth. Teetotalers may want to try this version with coffee—or you could go the tiramisu route and combine the two.

Pretty much any liquid will work, which opens up endless possibilities—including savory iterations like this one, which combines fresh grapefruit juice and zest with chicken stock and a little vodka to yield a silky, tangy not-at-all-sweet sauce for fish or chicken.

It's like crème anglaise's bubblier, wittier cousin.

2. Measure your ingredients.

The standard ratio for sabayon is equal parts egg yolk to liquid to sugar, but you can adjust the amount of liquid based on how thick you'd like your sabayon to be.

A trick that we learned from the chef at the Demeyere cookware factory in Antwerp (mrslarkin's Italian mother apparently used the same method) is to use an empty eggshell to measure the rest of the ingredients. An egg yolk is roughly one tablespoon in volume, and the white is about two tablespoons. Thus, half an egg shell holds 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons—allowing you to eyeball your measurements. Bank on one egg yolk per person, and go from there.

Half an egg shell can be used to eyeball 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons. Photo by Kyle Orosz

3. Have everything else ready.

Sabayon needs constant whisking so that it doesn't overcook or turn into scrambled eggs, and it will only hold for a few minutes before it starts to deflate and develop a wrinkly skin on the surface. If you're using the sabayon to top fish or meat, it should already be resting in a warm place so that all you have to do is put it on plates and spoon the sabayon over the top. If you're assembling a multi-component Italian dessert, make sure everything else is ready to go before you turn on the stove.

4. Whisk, whisk, whisk. And then whisk some more.

If it's your first attempt, it's a good idea to make the sabayon in a double boiler or over a bain marie in order to avoid ending up with scrambled eggs.

To do this, bring an inch or two of water to a simmer in a shallow saucepan. Place a heatproof bowl, such as glass Pyrex, that rests easily in your saucepan and make sure that it doesn’t touch the surface of the water. Whisk together the egg yolks and sugar, if you're using it. When the yolks are pale yellow, whisk in the liquid and any other ingredients, then set the bowl over the simmering water, whisking constantly.

The mixture will quickly begin to froth and expand in the bowl. Whisk vigorously for several minutes, making sure the water in the saucepan never gets above a simmer, until the sabayon is thick and ribbony and at least doubled in volume (the temperature should reach about 150º F). If you have any uncertainty, use a candy thermometer to check the temperature.

Once you've made sabayon a few times, you can experiment with cooking it over direct heat. The chef at Demeyere told us he demonstrates the quality of their stainless steel cookware by wowing his audience with a sabayon made directly on the burner. Use a good quality saucepan with even heat distribution and rounded base and cook the sabayon over a medium flame, moving the pan on and off the heat as you whisk to keep it from boiling…or worse, burning.

Serve the sabayon warm, or continue whisking it off the heat until it cools a bit, but do not let it sit for more than a few minutes.

Once you’ve mastered the basic elements of making sabayon, you can have fun experimenting with different savory and sweet flavor combinations.

If it's your first attempt, it's a good idea to make the sabayon in a double boiler or over a bain marie in order to avoid ending up with scrambled egg.

Here are some more ideas for flavor combinations to try:

Savory:

  • egg yolk + champagne + lemon juice and zest + pinch cayenne
  • egg yolk + white wine + finely chopped rosemary
  • egg yolk + tequila + lime juice + pinch ancho chile powder
  • egg yolk + sake + yuzu + miso paste

Sweet:

  • egg yolk + rum + maple syrup + freshly grated nutmeg
  • egg yolk + whisky + orange zest + honey
  • egg yolk + sherry + sugar (fold in whipped egg whites at the end)
  • egg yolk + beer + sugar + black pepper (the Belgian edition—see recipe below)

So, what exactly do you do with sweet sabayon once you’ve successfully made it? You can eat it on its own, but it’s super good when used in place of whipped cream as a cream sauce over fresh berries. You can also use it as a sauce the way you would with crème anglaise; drizzle it over a slice of cheesecake or serve it with chocolate lava cake. Or, perhaps my favorite idea, make bread pudding with sabayon and cornetti, an Italian version of a buttery croissant.

As for a savory iteration, serve the sauce alongside roasted oysters, blanched asparagus (as a swap for bearnaise sauce), or seared scallops.

Do you prefer sweet or savory sabayon? What's your favorite way to serve it? Let us know in the comments below!

Read all about the 100-year-old Belgian cookware brand Demeyere, who introduced us to the beer-based sabayon in the video above—and tell us your favorite way to use sabayon in the comments.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Markbayankeefan
    Markbayankeefan
  • Erma Davis
    Erma Davis
  • dione
    dione
  • Connor Bower
    Connor Bower
  • Merrill Stubbs
    Merrill Stubbs
I'm a native New Yorker, Le Cordon Bleu graduate, former food writer/editor turned entrepreneur, mother of two, and unapologetic lover of cheese.

9 Comments

Markbayankeefan February 19, 2020
Good explanation, I find your mix it up tips engaging. Thanks
 
Erma D. August 24, 2019
I used to make sabayon sauce with Grand Marnier and orange zest. Served it over a wine glass full of fresh mixed berries.
 
Author Comment
Merrill S. October 7, 2019
Sounds so good!
 
dione May 7, 2017
My mother was born in Northern Italy and I was taught us to make zabaglione using the eggshell as well!!! We use Sweet Vermouth or Marsala.
 
Connor B. November 15, 2016
Very excited for the eggshell to be the new standard unit of measure—easier clean up for everyone.
 
Author Comment
Merrill S. November 15, 2016
Hear, hear to a zabaglione craze!
 
LadyR December 31, 2020
Speaking of fruit, I keep a large jar of fresh black mission figs in the refrigerator, marinating in Asbach Uralt brandy (they keep for ages). The natural fig jus causes the cognac to congeal just slightly, making an amazing addition for various sauces, soups, fruits... what have you.

If a dessert is absolutely necessary, make it a light Orange Cranberry Sauce or fig panna cotta that could be made a day before and dressed at the table, or make a figgy zabaglione served in a wide-mouth martini glass topped with a brandy marinated fig and a drizzle of the cognac figgy jus.

Compliments of manuscript:
© Lady Ralston's Canadian Contessa Kitchen gets Saucy ~ Sauces, Aolies, Dressings, Drizzles, Drops, and Puddles
 
PHIL November 15, 2016
It's always a crowd pleaser at my house, and yes amysarah, with Marsala. Takes fruit to the next level,
 
amysarah November 15, 2016
Glad to see this - I love sabayon. I have the copper bowl my mother bought in Paris specifically to make it (though she usually did the Italian version, with Marsala.)
In fact, years ago in a comment on some thread here, I wondered why it never became an "it" dessert like creme brulee, molten chocolate cake, tiramisu...maybe this piece will finally kick off that zabaglione craze I've been waiting for!