Many people only know hollandaise sauce as an integral part of that truly American meal, brunch. After all, eggs Benedict with hollandaise and a Bloody Mary or mimosa is a Sunday morning classic. But the sauce that tops this weekend treat is about as French as you can get (even the Italians don’t claim to have invented it first), and beyond brunch, it has so much potential.
When made properly, hollandaise is light, billowy, lemony, and rich with butter and egg. It’s glorious when paired with green vegetables like asparagus and broccoli (the vegetables are a nice foil to the richness of the sauce), lovely and delicate on fish, and a classic treat on a steak, with fried potatoes on the side (in that case, try not to think about the richness).
The thing that makes this sauce truly French is proper cooking technique. Hollandaise isn’t difficult to make, but you need to know what you’re doing to get it right.
Clarify the butter
Brands of butter vary in their butterfat content. Clarifying the butter allows you to start with pure butterfat, which gives you more control over the thickness of your sauce. Start by melting the butter and then let it settle a bit off the heat so that the water and most of the milk solids fall to the bottom and the clear yellow butterfat floats to the top. Then skim off any milk solids still floating on the surface and pour off the clarified butterfat, leaving the solids and water behind.
Heat the egg yolks
Whisk egg yolks and a small amount of a flavoring liquid—usually lemon juice—plus water, which helps lighten the mixture, over low heat. This gently cooks the yolks, thickening them and allowing them to capture air bubbles as you whisk. During this stage, you’re trying to control the coagulation of the proteins in the yolks. You want them to thicken slowly so that
Add the butter
Off the heat, whisk the clarified butter into the yolk foam until the sauce becomes very thick and glossy. Here, you’re creating an emulsion between the butterfat and the eggs. This process is less tricky than heating the eggs, but you do need to add the butter slowly so that it’s “accepted” by the eggs. If you add too much butter too quickly, your sauce will break because the emulsion will go out of balance. When that happens, the butter can’t be incorporated and will just float free, making the sauce look curdled. there’s enough time to create air bubbles and expand before the proteins become set and won’t stretch anymore. Cook them too quickly and you may have a thick yolk base but not a fluffy one. And if you cook them much too fast—or too hot—you’ll have scrambled eggs.
By adjusting a few ingredients in the Classic Hollandaise Sauce recipe, you can come up with a few modern takes on hollandaise.
Problem The sauce breaks, meaning that it goes from smooth and satiny to curdled-looking , or that small pools of butter appear on the surface.
Solution Stop adding butter. Whisk in cold water, starting with 1 tsp. and adding up to 2 Tbs. Whisk in small circles in one spot until you create a little vortex of re-emulsified sauce and then whisk in wider circles from there until the sauce looks smooth again. Then continue to add any remaining butter.