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Beurre blanc: Teaching an old sauce new tricks

Beurre blanc: Teaching an old sauce new tricks

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LOS ANGELES - Pity the poor saucier. Though the position of the maker-of-sauces has been, since Escoffier, near the top of the kitchen hierarchy, the sauces themselves often go unsung.

Taken for granted, sauces often are relegated to the decorative side of a dish or tucked under marquee ingredients.

But from such outposts, what beauty can be discovered and what flavors can be discerned.

Take the classic beurre blanc sauce: a velvety, delicate butter sauce that originated in Nantes, France, on the Loire River, and traditionally was paired with poached fish.

Subtle in flavor and ethereal in texture, it's a warm lemon-colored sauce, lightly aromatic, with a hint of brine lacing creamy butter. It's an old sauce, but came into its own during the heyday of nouvelle cuisine 30 years ago, when chefs began favoring it over the heavier roux-based sauces of old French kitchens.

Since then, beurre blanc has become part of the standard repertoire, a staple in many a restaurant kitchen. Yet we rarely hear of it.

"It's not cutting edge anymore," says Campanile's Mark Peel. "We use it all the time, but we don't necessarily advertise it as such. We don't want to make the menu look like the back of a soup can."

Sona's David Myers is more effusive: "I love beurre blancs; I love the flavors; I love the richness. It's one of those classics that always comes back: It's a canvas. It can lend itself to anything."

And Water Grill's David Lefevre notes that the sauce is another example of the kind of "retro resurgence" we're seeing now.

So what exactly is beurre blanc?

It's a simple emulsion - a reduction of shallots, wine and vinegar, and a goodly amount of butter. By goodly amount, I mean a lot, which might be why it's often not listed on menus.

But butter is a heavenly thing. Added (or "mounted") to sauces and reductions, it's the difference between flat, overly acidic or watery concoctions and smooth, balanced, silken creations.

When paired with a main dish that can stand, or demands, a rich sauce - poached fish or grilled steak - a good butter sauce can be the key to a deeply satisfying experience.

The balance of the emulsion (part acidic reduction, part pure butter) is also what gives beurre blanc its glossy essence - and its charm. Not unlike a Hollandaise or an aioli, it's the fusion of a component that's pure flavor with one that's pure fat. Alone, either is too much. But fused together, it's a marriage made in heaven.

So why don't people make sauces more often?

Maybe we're wary of butter these days. But a little beurre blanc satisfies an urge for richness - while the rest of the menu takes a leaner tack.

For a sauce that yields 1 cup, 2 sticks of unsalted butter work the best. OK, that's half a pound, but consider that recipes from the 1960s - Julia Child's, for example, called for a full pound.

You can use less than 8 ounces of butter, even as little as 4 ounces, and the emulsion will still hold. Less than that and you'll get a thin acidic liquid rather than a real sauce. Eight ounces seem to strike the perfect balance in flavor, as well as achieve the right texture: a thick and creamy sauce that coats the back of your spoon the way it should.

Another reason few home cooks make beurre blanc is its reputation.

It was long considered to be terribly fragile, a sauce only the most skilled saucier could make. Cookbooks warned that the butter had to be ice cold, added in tiny increments, the nubs swirled in delicately.

Such meticulousness isn't necessary. The key to making a successful beurre blanc is pretty simple. Yes, the butter should be cold and needs to go in slowly. But a few minutes outside the refrigerator won't hurt it, and you can add it a few tablespoons at a time. Just consider that the sauce is an emulsion - that is, a combination of two incompatible ingredients, like oil and water - and as such, requires a few basic conditions.

To form an emulsion, you need enough liquid to bond to the butter, and the emulsion, once bonded, needs to be kept at the right temperature. If you let the sauce boil, it will separate, or "break"; if you let it get too cold, the butter will harden and, essentially, crystallize. It's not at all difficult. First, make the reduction. For a traditional beurre blanc, simmer finely minced shallots, Champagne vinegar and dry white wine until the mixture reduces by about 90 percent. Add more liquid (water for the basic sauce, other liquids to vary things) so that you have a few tablespoons. Why not simply reduce it that far in the first place? Because you want to cook off the raw taste of the ingredients and allow the flavors to combine. If you get distracted and find you've reduced it too much, just add more water.

Next, add a few bits of cold unsalted butter, start whisking and immediately lower the heat. If you whisk the sauce constantly and keep the heat low, the butter will go in easily and create a glorious velvety sauce that is a lot more difficult to break than legend would have you think.

Many cookbooks suggest adding cream to the reduction to further stabilize the emulsion because the cream acts as a binder. But a true beurre blanc doesn't include cream. Because it's fairly difficult to break the emulsion if you keep the heat low and continue whisking, cream seems unnecessary.

Once you've incorporated all the butter, you're done.

Keep the finished sauce in a warm place - near a pilot light, over a pan of warm water, in a thermos bottle - stirring it occasionally and adding water if it thickens a little. The irony of a beurre blanc is that it's actually harder to keep than it is to make. With some vigilance, you can hold the sauce successfully for up to a few hours.

At home, make the sauce right before you serve it. End of mystery.

Once you understand the basic chemistry of beurre blanc, you can play with it.

If you're pairing the sauce with meat instead of fish, trade the white wine for red, switch out the Champagne vinegar for red wine vinegar (or double the red wine and omit the vinegar) and you have a "beurre rouge" instead. The deeper flavors of the red wine particularly complement beef.

Substitute lemon juice for wine and omit the vinegar to make a "beurre citron." Or infuse herbs - tarragon, thyme, rosemary - into the reduction, or add stock to it for a lighter sauce.

Or try a coconut beurre blanc, adding coconut milk to the reduction instead of water or cream. Its subtle flavor adds a third dimension, rounding out the tart layer of shallots and vinegar. It pairs beautifully with salmon or Arctic char, poached in a court bouillon spiked with lemon grass, Thai chili, ginger and kefir lime.

At Bouchon in Napa Valley, chef de cuisine Josh Schwartz makes a cider beurre blanc with local cider; he uses it to sauce day boat scallops, parsnip puree and sauteed apples.

Marcus Samuelsson, chef at Aquavit in New York, devised a soy beurre blanc to match the seared tuna and scallops in his cookbook "Aquavit." In his sauce, chicken stock and soy sauce replace the wine and vinegar, and he adds fresh thyme and shallots to the reduction with a little cream and a few tablespoons of butter.

"In 1984 when I was a student," Samuelsson said, the classic beurre blanc "was the only way. Today it's the foundation, but I can give you 50 different variations."


Makes 1 cup

1 tablespoon finely minced shallots

3 tablespoons dry white wine, such as Sauvignon Blanc

3 tablespoons Champagne vinegar

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/8 teaspoon white pepper

2 tablespoons water

1/2 pound (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes

In a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan, simmer shallots, wine, vinegar, salt and pepper over medium-high heat until reduced to about 1 tablespoon. Add water. Cook down to about 2 tablespoons.

Into the hot reduction, whisk in two cubes of butter and immediately turn the heat to low. Whisk in remaining butter, one to two cubes at a time, until incorporated. It's important to whisk constantly. The sauce should be thick, the consistency of heavy cream. Strain if desired.

The sauce is best served immediately, but if you don't, it can be kept for 1 or 2 hours over a pan of barely warm water, near a pilot light or in a thermos bottle. Stir occasionally, whisking in a little bit of water if the sauce thickens.



Servings: 4

1 pound skirt steak

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh rosemary

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh thyme

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/8 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 leek (halved lengthwise), the dark green ends removed, cut into long julienne strips

1 cup canola oil

1 tablespoon good-quality olive oil

Pat the skirt steak with the rosemary, thyme, salt and pepper, cover and let stand overnight.

In a cold medium saucepan, add tleeks and canola oil and turn the heat on high. Fry leeks until golden and crispy. Drain on paper towels and reserve.

Brush steak with olive oil and bring to room temperature while you heat a stove-top grill or prepare an outdoor grill.

Over high heat or glowing coals, grill the steak, about 3 to 4 minutes per side. Let rest for at least 5 minutes, then cut in thin slices on the diagonal.

Beurre rouge and assembly:

3 tablespoons red wine

3 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon finely minced shallots

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/8 teaspoon white pepper

2 tablespoons water

1/2 pound (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cubed

Several chives for garnish

In a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan, simmer wine, vinegar, shallots, salt and pepper until reduced to 1 tablespoon. Add water and simmer until reduced to about 2 tablespoons. Turn the heat to low and add butter, a few cubes at a time, until incorporated.

Spoon about 1/4 cup beurre rouge into the center of a plate. Fan the pieces of steak around the sauce in a semi-circle (or as desired). Arrange fried leeks on top of beef and thread a few chives through the leeks. Serve immediately.

Saucy variations on a buttery theme

Traditional sauce is just the beginning. Once you get the technique down, you can make all kinds of variations on a classic beurre blanc.

Brighten it with a little lemon juice and zest, or spice it up with a squeeze of lime and fresh ginger. Or make a coconut milk beurre blanc and pair it with poached Arctic char and a timbale of black rice.

Here are more ideas:

• Beurre citron: Replace the shallots, vinegar and wine with 1/4 cup lemon juice and 1 teaspoon lemon zest.

• Beurre rouge: Replace the white wine with red and the Champagne vinegar with red wine vinegar.

• Coconut milk beurre blanc: After the initial reduction, add 2 tablespoons coconut milk instead of water.

• Ginger-lime beurre blanc: To the basic reduction sauce, add 1 tablespoon finely minced fresh ginger and replace the vinegar with an equal amount of lime juice.

• Soy beurre blanc: A mixture of soy sauce and chicken stock replaces the wine and vinegar. Add a sprig of fresh thyme to the reduction. Then 1 tablespoon of heavy cream is added; cut the amount of butter to 2 tablespoons. Remove the thyme. This is looser and lighter than the traditional sauce.

• Cider beurre blanc: Wine and vinegar are replaced with cider, and black peppercorns and a bay leaf are added to the reduction. Strain out the peppercorns and bay leaf before adding the butter.

• Saffron beurre blanc: Add a pinch of saffron threads to the reduction.

• Lighter beurre blanc: Reduce the amount of butter that you whisk in to 1/4 pound (1 stick), and add 2 tablespoons of chicken stock after you've finished. The sauce will be looser than classic beurre, but it will have about half the fat.


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