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!
But when my dish came to the table—pan-fried turbot 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.
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. —Sarah Jampel
Test Kitchen Notes
Though beurre nantais, also known as beurre blanc (meaning "white butter"), is not one of the five French mother sauces (béchamel, espagnole, hollandaise, tomato, and velouté), it is a base recipe from which many other sauces are built. This French butter sauce in particular does not have an emulsifier and relies solely on the butter, though cream may be used to help stabilize it or at least start the emulsion.
"The original version, from Brittany, is almost always prepared with Muscadet wine," James Peterson writes in Sauces: Classic and Contemporary Sauce Making, which "has the crisp, clean flavor and the acidic edge essential to a successful beurre blanc. If Muscadet is unavailable or too expensive, other wines can be used, but if only wines containing relatively little acidity are available, it may be necessary to add a few additional drops of vinegar to wake up the sauce at the end." Appropriately, Julia Child's beurre blanc sauce recipe below calls for vinegar to ensure this acidity.
A note on holding a beurre blanc: According to Peterson, "When beurre blanc is held for any length of time, it will begin to thicken and must be thinned periodically with heavy cream, water, court-bouillon, or another appropriate liquid, either cold or hot." A broken sauce can be fixed by whisking in reduced heavy cream (heavy cream that has been boiled down)—though, Peterson writes, "this can be done only once." But all this to say, a beurre blanc sauce is not as fussy as it sounds, and learning how to make one will significantly enhance any plate of fish, steak, or vegetables. —The Editors
- Prep time 15 minutes
- Cook time 30 minutes
- Makes 1 1/2 cups
sticks cold unsalted butter (24 tablespoons), cut into tablespoon-sized chunks
dry white wine
white wine vinegar
fresh lemon juice
- Have the butter ready (cut and in a small bowl).
- In a medium saucepan, bring wine and vinegar to a boil. Add shallots, salt, and pepper. Lower heat to a simmer and cook until most of the liquid has evaporated. (There should be about 1 1/2 tablespoons of liquid left. If you reduced it too far, add 1 tablespoon of water to remoisten.)
- Remove pan from heat. Whisk 2 pieces of butter into the reduction.
- Set pan over low heat and continue whisking butter into sauce a chunk at a time, allowing each piece to melt before adding more. Remember to maintain low heat and never let the sauce come to a boil once the butter is added, or the sauce will separate.
- Remove sauce from heat and whisk in the lemon juice. Taste and adjust seasoning, then strain through a fine sieve into a bowl.
- Serve with fish, poultry, or vegetables.