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

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There have been countless pieces written and Instagram photos taken in adoration of the egg and all its charms. And rightly so. 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 sauce 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.

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Video by Kyle Orosz

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 part froth, with a rich underlying flavor. It's like crème anglaise's bubblier, wittier cousin.

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.

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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.

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.
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, and it will only hold for a few minutes before it starts to deflate and develop a skin. 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 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 egg.

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Bring an inch or two of water to a simmer in a shallow saucepan. In a heatproof bowl that rests easily in your saucepan without touching 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).

Our Demeyere Saucier getting whisked away.
Our Demeyere Saucier getting whisked away. Photo by Kyle Orosz

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.

Demeyere Apollo Saucier Pan

Demeyere Apollo Saucier Pan

From $169
Demeyere 5 Plus Saucier with Lid, 3.5QT

Demeyere 5 Plus Saucier with Lid, 3.5QT

$139

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.

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
This beer sabayon is served over caramelized pears and crumbled Speculoos cookies.
This beer sabayon is served over caramelized pears and crumbled Speculoos cookies. Photo by Kyle Orosz

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)
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Demeyere's Beer Sabayon

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Serves 1
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 tablespoon caster sugar
  • 1 egg cup (half the shell of a broken egg) of beer, preferably De Koninck
  • Freshly ground black pepper

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.

Tags: Sabayon