These aren’t mother sauces or even small sauces, but worthy of mention nonetheless.

They’re emulsified butter sauces–no egg yolks.

Butter itself has a little in the way of lecithin and other naturally occurring emulsifiers.  Nowhere near as much as egg yolks, but better than nothing.

These butter sauces are–if you kind of squint and use your imagination–conceptually similar to hollandaise, but a bit thinner and lighter.  They do still need to be silky-smooth, though, and a consistency the French call “nappé“–thick enough to coat the back of a spoon and leave a blank trail when you drag your finger along the back of said spoon.  If I had to make a comparison, I’d say that you should shoot for something a little thicker than heavy cream.

They’re both made with three ingredients:  wine (white wine for beurre blanc, red wine for beurre rouge), shallots, and butter–whole butter, not clarified.  Basically, you’re using the wine and the shallots to flavor the butter.  The butter itself is the sauce.  You can add all sorts of herbs, spices, and/or vegetable purées, in whatever way will complement whatever you’re serving it with.

I mean, come on–it’s shallots, wine, and butter.  How can this possibly go wrong?  What’s not to love?  You could put this stuff on sawdust or cinderblocks and I, for one, would happily volunteer to eat it.

A few points of procedure (whether it’s beurre blanc or beurre rouge):

  1. Don’t use an aluminum pan, as that’ll funk up the color.  Also, don’t use a flimsy pan, which doesn’t distribute heat well, or a nonstick pan, which screws up the emulsifying process.
  2. Reduce the wine, shallots, and whatever herbs you’ve settled on using to the point that the French call au sec, which means “danged near bone dry.”  Some people add a little heavy cream at this point, which helps stabilize the emulsion.  You don’t have to, but hey–what’s the harm in adding heavy cream?  I vote “yes.”
  3. Just in case you haven’t learned enough French today, here’s a little more:  monter au beurre, which means adding butter a little bit at a time.  After you’ve made the reduction, monter au beurre, and be sure to use really cold butter, as that’s the only way to make sure that the butterfat, water, and milk solids get incorporated into the sauce.
  4. Once you get all the butter worked in, strain the sauce and keep it warm–not hot.

Why not hot?  Well, here we go again.  Hit me with your science stick.

Starting around 136F, proteins start to crap out and turn loose of the butterfat.  If you try to keep an emulsified sauce at more than 136F for any real length of time, you’ll wind up with separated–“broken”–sauce, which is an awful and embarrassing thing, and just what makes a chef want to go home and put a bullet through his head.  Seriously.  It’s a career-ender.

As with hollandaise, you don’t want it to get too cool either.  Below 85F or so, the butterfats start to solidify, and if you try to reheat it, it’ll break and all the whisking under the sun won’t save it.  You can use a cool beurre blanc as a kind of flavored butter (which is what it is, after all), once it gets to the consistency of mayonnaise, but by then it’s more of a condiment than a sauce.

Before I forget:

  • Beurre noir is “black butter.”  That’s a bit of an exaggeration as it isn’t really black.  Dark brown, definitely, but certainly not black.  How does it get to be dark brown?  You cook it.  Then, if you want, you can add some vinegar, lemon juice, capers, parsley, whatever.  It typically shows up on stuff like fish, eggs, or veg.
  • Beurre noisette.  I read somewhere that the term translates as “brown butter,” but that’s not accurate at all.  It really means “nutty butter,” believe it or not.  Cook some butter until it’s light brown, let it cool, and taste it.  You’ll be surprised by how nutlike it is.  Sounds crazy, I know, but try it.  Beyond that, you can trick it out and serve it up as you would beurre noir.

Want to make a beurre blanc?  Cool.  Me too.

Beurre blanc

1 oz. white wine

4 oz. white wine vinegar

about 1 1/2 tsp. salt

about 1/2 tsp. white pepper

3 Tbsp. minced shallots

2 lb. whole butter, cold

Put everything but the butter into a saucepan and reduce it au sec–down to about two tablespoons, max (the less au sec it is, the thinner the sauce will be, if that makes sense).

Cut the butter up into little bits and monter au beurre over a low flame.  Adding the cold butter should keep the sauce’s temp somewhere between 100F and 120F.

Take it off the heat and put it through a chinois or some cheesecloth, and hang onto it between 100F and 130F.

Lord, I’m glad that’s over with.  I mean, I love sauces and everything, but it turned out to be more work than I had anticipated.

Can’t I just have some popcorn and a Zero bar?