The mention of hollandaise sauce can strike fear into even the most competent cooks, as the pursuit of perfection with this classic butter sauce is fraught with danger, they say. There are few ingredients (eggs, butter, acidity, and seasoning), so no big deal there. Understanding a bit of the science behind the sauce, though, gives a clue to where the risks lie.
The science of emulsification is the key to a successful hollandaise. Put simply: Egg yolks have a fantastic ability to bind with large quantities of fat. By whisking them over simmering water, they become frothy, lighter, and stronger, which readies them for the next step of slowly whisking in the melted butter. By carefully bringing these two processes together, the science gets to work, and the yolks and butter turn into a thick, glossy emulsion.
Easy? In theory, yes, but there are a few pitfalls to keep an eye out for. Over-whisk the yolks, and they struggle to hold the butter. A too-hot sauce results in scrambled eggs. Add the butter too quickly, and the poor yolks will be overwhelmed, creating an oily sauce. Don’t despair though; check out the rescue plan at the end of this recipe if this happens to you.
Once you have mastered the technique, what do you do with this delicious hollandaise? As tasty as eggs Benedict are, hollandaise has much more to give. Try slathering the buttery sauce over fat spears of fresh asparagus, roasted cauliflower, or steamed broccoli. Fish and seafood love a little on the plate, or make tiny tarts filled with salmon and generous dollops of sauce. Use it to sauce lobster fresh off the grill, or on a classic coquilles Saint Jacques. The addition of tarragon creates a quick béarnaise to make your grilled steaks (and those fries on the side) very happy.
Hollandaise does not reheat well; you may be successful if you do it slowly, but the chances of splitting are high, so eat it as soon as you can and enjoy it at its best.
- Prep time 10 minutes
- Cook time 35 minutes
- makes 1 1/2 cups
white wine vinegar
freshly squeezed lemon juice
sprig fresh thyme
large egg yolks
unsalted butter, melted and cooled to room temperature
pinch cayenne pepper (optional)
- Before you begin, set up a double-boiler by filling a large saucepan a third of the way full with water. Set a large heatproof glass or ceramic bowl onto the pan, checking that the bowl's bottom does not touch the water. Fill a large bowl with cold water and set it aside (more on that later).
- In a small saucepan set over medium heat, add the vinegar, lemon juice, peppercorns, and thyme. Bring to a gentle boil and reduce by half. Put aside to cool.
- Bring the pan of water to a gentle simmer. Add the egg yolks and water to the bowl, and place over the simmering water. Whisk vigorously until the egg yolks have doubled in size, are lighter in color, and the air bubbles become very small.
- Remove the bowl from the pan but keep the water simmering. Strain the vinegar reduction through a fine sieve into the egg yolks and whisk again.
- Put the bowl back onto the pan and slowly add the melted butter a little at a time, whisking continuously, and making sure the butter is fully combined before adding more. Avoid getting the mixture too warm—if splashes of the yolk mix begin to solidify on the sides of the bowl, it is getting too hot. If so, plunge the bowl into the cold water you prepared earlier to cool it down, then continue as before.
- Whisk, whisk, whisk, and keep whisking, and the sauce will start to thicken. When ribbons form on the surface, the sauce is almost finished. Add the salt and the cayenne (if using). You will now have a thick(ish), buttery, slightly sharp, lemony sauce.
- To keep the hollandaise warm, lower the heat, or turn it off altogether if you are ready to eat. If the sauce splits, first, quickly add 2 or 3 tablespoons of ice water and whisk like crazy, which should re-emulsify the sauce. If the sauce doesn't come back, working quickly, put an egg yolk into a clean bowl and whisk lightly to break it up. Gradually whisk in the split sauce a little at a time, popping the bowl over the simmering water from time to time to gently heat it up.