A classic old sauce gets new treatment

Amount of butter is reduced, yet velvety beurre blanc still satisfies an urge for richness

December 06, 2006|By Amy Scattergood | Amy Scattergood,Los Angeles Times

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: 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 Mark Peel of Campanile restaurant in Los Angeles. "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."

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.

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 one cup, two 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 long was 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.

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