The post’s title is a Sex Pistols reference, in case you didn’t get it.

Initially, I thought “Hey, I just have to get hollandaise over with, and I’m done with all this mother sauce posting business.”

And then I started thinking about the realities of hollandaise.

Uh-oh.  This isn’t going to be as quick and easy as I initially thought.  Not by a long shot.  Pull up a gurney and get comfortable, because we’re going to be here a while.  Can I bring you some bonbons, or a moist towelette?  A trombone?  (Trombone‘s the Italian word for “paper clip,” by the way.  No idea what made me think of that.  I suppose I’m just stalling in order to avoid tackling the complexities of hollandaise.)

Did I mention that “Hollandaise in the sun” is a Sex Pistols reference?

The Sex Pistols were formed in 1975 by the recently deceased nut-job media maven Malcolm McLaren.  They evolved from The Strand, a London band formed in 1972 with working-class teenagers Steve Jones on vocals, Paul Cook on drums, and Wally Nightingale on guitar. According to a later account by Jones, both he and Cook played on instruments they had stolen.

Okay, just kidding.  Hollandaise isn’t all that hard.  There’s just a little science behind it.  The specific science in question is “emulsification,” or “emulsifying,” or “emulsifabsquatulationalism.”  However you choose to parse it, the concept is actually pretty straightforward:  an emulsion is what happens when you take two liquids that would prefer not to combine, but you force them to combine anyway.

Vinaigrette’s a perfect example.  Vinegar–which is water-based–doesn’t have any real interest in getting jiggy with oil, which is oil-based.  But if you know what you’re doing, you can make it happen.  You can be the Chuck Woolery of the pantry.

Here’s what you need to know:  Get the proportions right, first of all.  This bit’s critical.  What you’re doing, basically, is suspending innumerable oily molecules within a relatively small volume of watery whatever.  If your measurements are off, you’re sunk.

Here’s one of the nicest and most generous nuggets of knowledge I can ever impart to anyone:  The ratio for a vinaigrette–any vinaigrette–is three parts oil to one part vinegar.

Having that tidbit of knowhow in my armory, I’ve made countless vinaigrettes over the years, all of which rocked.  Orange-vanilla-honey vinaigrette, rosewater and lavender vinaigrette, avocado-salsa vinaigrette, pickled cactus vinaigrette, peanut and red chile vinaigrette.  In fact, my friend and fellow cook Chris told me that I should write a vinaigrette cookbook.

The thing that makes me giggle on the way home is that it’s so frickin’ easy.  Just remember the 3:1 thing, and you can do whatever the hell you want.  There’s no mystery or magic behind it.  Just a little science, and sometimes science isn’t all that painful.

Anyway, get your proportions right.  Also, remember that persuading something oily and something watery to get cozy together requires some muscle.  This is where things like whisks, blenders, and food processors come in handy.

Hollandaise is, in a nutshell, egg yolks (watery) emulsified with melted butter (oily).  Luckily, egg yolks contain an enormous amount of lecithin, which is a natural assistant in the process of emulsifabsquatulationalism.  Basically, you whap the hell out of the egg yolks, along with a bit of some other watery thing–water, for instance, or lemon juice, or vinegar–and very slowly incorporate the melted butter.  The lecithin kind of coats the oily droplets and helps keep them suspended in the watery part.

As if the science of emulsifabsquatulationalism weren’t enough, now we have to consider temperatures and sanitation.  You cannot get this stuff too hot.  Hot lecithin–even slightly cooked–gives up its ability to emulsify.  Hot butter will leave you with nothing but a pan of scrambled eggs.  In other words, if you get either the yolks or the butter too hot, you’re screwed.  Simple as that.

It’s unfortunate that emulsified butter sauces have to sit within the “danger zone,” which is 40-140F (every now and then, the USDA/FDA/whoever alters the digits, but 40-140F is a good range to keep in mind.  If you let your hollandaise go over 150F or so, the yolks’ll cook, and you’ll wind up with a nasty and unservable mess.  Under 45F, and likewise–nasty and unservable–in this case, because the butter has solidified and separated from the yolks).

Are you starting to see that hollandaise is a very delicate balance?

A few things to keep in mind:

  1. Always use scrupulously clean pots, pans, spoons, whisks, ladles, etc.
  2. Don’t even think about making hollandaise ahead of time and hanging on to it.  You can make a hollandaise (and its small sauces) maybe an hour and half early, but that’s it.
  3. Keep your batches small.  Don’t try to make five gallons of hollandaise in one go.
  4. Never ever ever mix old sauce with new.

Once you’ve done it a few times, you should start to get the hang of it, and it’ll get to be a lot quicker and easier.  Heck, I saw Chef Michel Leborgne make hollandaise directly in a saucepan over an open flame, and it took him about thirty seconds.  Ain’t no way I could do that, but the point is:  Hollandaise is well within the realm of human possibilities.

You have, no doubt, noticed that I haven’t bothered giving you hard-and-fast recipes for the other mother sauces.  I’m making an exception here with hollandaise, because of–well, you know.  Science.  Sometimes you’re better off measuring stuff and following specific instructions.  Baking’s like that too.

This here’s my go-to recipe and procedure.


1/2 tsp. crushed white peppercorns

6 oz. good, mild vinegar

4 oz. water

10 egg yolks

2 1/2 oz. fresh, real lemon juice

1 qt. clarified butter, warm–not hot*

salt and white pepper to taste

cayenne pepper to taste

*–You can use melted whole butter if you want, but your chances of success are greater if you use clarified butter.  More science.

Put the crushed white peppercorns, water, and vinegar into a little sasucpan and let it burble merrily along until it’s reduced to about half of its original volume.

Put the yolks into an SS bowl (“stainless steel”).  Run the peppercorn/water/vinegar melange through a superfine strainer (a chinois, if you have one), into the yolks.

Put the SS yolk bowl on a double-boiler, and whisk the yolks non-stop until they start–just start–to get a little thick.  If you can pick up the whisk and drag a trail, they’re done.  Take the SS bowl off the heat.  Do not, under any circumstances, overcook the yolks.  Huh-uh.  No.

Whisk about an ounce of lemon juice into the yolk stuff.  That will–all other science aside–stop the yolks from further cooking.

Now start whisking the butter in, one drop at a time.  Seriously:  one drop at a time.  Once the emulsion starts to get its groove on you can work more quickly, but expect this process to take an agonizingly long time.  Keep dribbing, drabbing, and whisking until all the butter’s in there, remembering all the while that patience is a virtue.

Whisk in the rest of the lemon juice and give it a taste.  Add salt, white pepper, and cayenne as you see fit.

Hollandaise absolutely has to be silky-smooth when you serve it, so put it through a chinois or some cheesecloth if you have to.

If you’re in a big hurry or too lazy to be bothered by science, there’s always:

Blender hollandaise

9 yolks

3 oz. warm water

1 oz.  lemon juice

cayenne to taste

1 tsp. salt

1/4 tsp. white pepper

Tabasco™ to taste

24 oz. butter (1 1/2 lb., or 6 sticks)

Put everything but the butter into your blender and give it a good blast for five seconds or so.

Heat the butter to about 175F.  With the blender motor running, drizzle in all the butter–shouldn’t take more than twenty or thirty seconds.  Taste it and tweak the seasoning.

As before, put it through a chinois or some cheesecloth if it’s at all lumpy.

Shirley O. Corriher has some excellent information and advice about hollandaise in her wonderful book CookWise, to which I eagerly refer you.

Small hollandaise sauces are as follows:

  • Béarnaise.  Some people will tell you that Béarnaise is a proper mother sauce unto itself, but I don’t really see the logic behind that as it is obviously derived directly from hollandaise.  Feel free to make up your own mind, though.  Reduce some white wine and herbs, add that to the yolks, and off you go.  That’s a Béarnaise.

There are two smaller versions of Béarnaise, which are choron and foyot.  For choron, you add some tomato paste and a little cream.  For foyot, a bit of glace de viande.

Other small hollandaise sauces are:

  • Grimrod.  Hollandaise infused with saffron.
  • Maltaise.  Hit it with some o.j. and orange zest.  Blood oranges, ideally, which give it a nice color.  Ordinary oranges don’t really have much effect on the finished sauce’s color.
  • Mousseline/Chantilly.  Fold some whipped heavy cream into your hollandaise.  Also useful as a glaçage (a nifty coating.  Spread some on a cooked fish fillet, for instance, and pop it under a broiler until it gets pretty and happy).

All that leaves is beurre blanc and beurre rouge, but I’m way too sleepy to even begin thinking about them.  They’re not mother sauces, but still important.