Butter Sauces

Seared Salmon with Strawberry Beurre Rouge

Seared Salmon with Strawberry Beurre Rouge

With this article I'd like to continue with the sauce theme and tackle butter sauces. These can be some of the most difficult to pull off, but with a little patience (and practice) there is no reason a non-pro can't (ahem) churn these out at home. I'll be discussing three variants, particularly. Beurre Blanc, Beurre Rouge, and Beurre Nantais. The differences being Beurre Blanc (literally translated from French meaning "white butter") is made with white wine, Beurre Rouge (red butter) is made with red wine, and Beurre Nantais (named so after the town of Nantes in France) utilizes cream as a stabilizer. Monter Au Beurre, or mounting a sauce with butter (again with the fancy French terms, but is essentially what a Beurre Blanc is, a mounted sauce), simply means emulsifying butter into it, most commonly done with pan sauces (see my post about pan sauces here) the term applies to any sauce that has butter emulsified into it at the last step. While Hollandaise does have butter emulsified into it, it doesn't fall into the same category as a "mounted" sauce. Because of the presence of egg yolks and the butter is clarified it's more akin to a cooked mayonnaise, but that's a different article entirely. I'll start with Beurre Blanc. A classic French sauce that goes well with fish, shellfish, chicken, or any mild flavor that has little to no fat content of it's own. This is a very tricky sauce, however, and does not reheat well without alteration, so be sure the recipe you use will yield the quantity you will require for the meal with little to spare. More on reheating in a minute. The basic Beurre Blanc is really nothing more than white wine, a little vinegar, herbs, and butter. So why all the fuss? It's the way these ingredients are combined, the technique, that will make or, quite literally, break the sauce. So here's a basic recipe for Beurre Blanc (Beurre Rouge is made exactly the same, just substitute red wine for white): 1 750 ml bottle semi-dry white wine, Chardonnay works best 1 cup good gelatinous chicken stock (optional, but if chosen don't use anything prepackaged, homemade or not at all is the way to go) 2 tablespoons vinegar, tarragon vinegar is killer for this, champagne or standard white wine vinegars work well too, simple white vinegar need not apply. 1 teaspoon Tabasco (not generally used in the "classic" method, but I like the little added zing it provides) 2 shallots sliced fairly thin 1 tablespoon crushed garlic 5-6 thyme stems, whole 2-3 bay leaves, depending on size 1 tablespoon whole black pepper corns 1 pound butter, unsalted, cut into 1/2 inch cubes and well chilled Salt to taste Yield: 2.25 cups, or 18 oz., standard portion size for a dinner plate around 2oz. Begin by coating the bottom of a heavy sauce or saute pan with a little oil and heating over medium heat. Sweat the shallots until very soft, but not browned and add the garlic, pepper corns and bay leaves. Crank the heat up a little and saute this until the garlic is fragrant and deglaze with the whole bottle of wine (remember to have the wine uncorked and close at hand lest the garlic brown you you have to start over). With the wine, add the vinegar, Tabasco, and herbs. Reduce this on high heat until the pan is nearly dry, down to about 2-3 tablespoons total volume. If using the chicken stock, add that and reduce again. Cut the heat back to medium and slowly start whisking in the chilled butter cubes. This is the tricky part. You need to maintain a constant temperature to get the proper emulsification. Just under, but not quite boiling. If it boils it breaks, and you're left with a puddle of melted butter and acid. Adding the cold butter to the reduction will drop the temperature significantly at the beginning when the total volume is very small. So go slowly, adding one or two cubes at a time and whisking until almost fully incorporated. As the volume of the sauce increases with the addition of more butter, so too does it's ability to absorb the thermal shock of adding the cold butter to the hot sauce, so gradually increase the speed at which you add it. When all of the butter is fully incorporated, kill the heat and run the sauce through a fine mesh strainer. Hold in a hot, but not boiling, double boiler until needed. If done right, you will be able to hold the finished sauce for quite a while at nearly boiling without it separating or "breaking". The key is maintaining the temperature at just under a boil. If the sauce does break on you, there is little you can do to save it. Beurre Nantais is nearly identical to Beurre Blanc with the addition of cream as a stabilizer. After the wine is reduced simply add 1 pint of heavy cream (as per that recipe above) and reduce that down to about 1/2 cup total volume before whisking in the butter. This increases the stability so well that a lot of restaurants will add cream to all of their butter sauces that need to be held hot for hours on end. I, personally, despise this.... If the cook in charge of making the sauce in the first place is taught proper technique and doesn't rush through it there's absolutely no need to add cream to a Beurre Blanc, turning it into a Beurre Nantais. The flavor and texture of a proper Beurre Blanc, or Beurre Rouge, is like satin. It glides off the tongue and leaves a very clean finish. Beurre Nantais, because of the added cream, does not. Not that I'm against Beurre Nantais, it just needs to be used differently. Most applications for Beurre Blanc require that smoother texture and cleaner finish. If your first attempt at making Beurre Blanc fails (and most of the time the first attempt does) there is a way to salvage the effort, though it won't hold for long at all and isn't always successful. Dip a spoon in it several times over the course of whipping in the butter, if it doesn't coat the back evenly, it's starting to break. If you notice this before you finish adding the butter, pull it off the heat immediately. In a separate pan, start reducing the pint of cream used in the Beurre Nantais recipe. When reduced to 1/2 cup start whipping the remainder of the cold butter into it, slowly as before. When you've run out of butter, slowly drizzle in the broken Beurre Blanc and add a little more salt to make up for the added fat content, effectively making a Beurre Nantais. Strain as before and use ASAP. If you do end up with left-over Beurre Blanc, you can chill it and reheat it for later use. However it involves the same process for fixing a broken sauce, again, turning it into a Beurre Nantais. Simply reduce your cream, as before, and treat the left-over, chilled sauce as you would the cold butter in the original recipe, whipping it in slowly then adjusting the seasoning.
Steamed Mussels in Beer Blanc

Steamed Mussels in Beer Blanc

Once you've got the technique down you can start experimenting with different varieties to better tailor the sauce to the dish at hand. At one of the first meetings of the Estate I made a variation on Beurre Blanc using beer instead of white wine and adding tomatoes and sliced scallions at the very end. This was poured over steamed Mussels and was quite a huge hit. At another, more recent meeting, I made a Beurre Rouge with strawberries instead of shallots and garlic to be served with seared Salmon. The variations are limited only by your imagination and creativity, so by all means ignore what your parents told you and play with your food! Jack

2 Comments  to  Butter Sauces

  1. Cindy says:

    Excellent post. I made my first beurre blanc tonight – or so I thought, but it did call for cream. I appreciate your correcting my mis-conception and providing so much useful information on the topic. I’m just a mom, not a chef but I’ve been branching out, trying new things. I was trying to figure out what to do with the leftover sauce (I ended up with way to much) when I came across your article. Will I be able to reheat the old fashioned way since I made it with cream or should I still use your technique?

  2. Jack says:

    Sorry for the late response, I was gearing up for a vacation when you commented.

    The “old fashioned way” will still give you a broken mess of fat and acid. Whipping the cold leftovers bit by bit into reduced cream is the only way to bring it back to life, and do that right before serving as it won’t be stable for long. Any leftovers the second time around are pretty much garbage.

    Glad you found this post helpful! I have a few posts dealing with stocks and sauces you may also find interesting.

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