I am not one for having loads of sauces with my food – I like ketchup and mayonnaise with chips, but otherwise I rarely have sauces on my plate. By sauces I mean the ones in jars and bottles, like ketchup, salad cream, hollandaise etc. I don’t mean gravy, which I love, and if I have the chance I pour over so much that my meal swims in gravy. But back to sauces, my exception is bearnaise.Jump to Recipe
Bearnaise sauce – I love the stuff. It’s beautiful with steak and chips, and really makes a steak dinner perfect as far as I am concerned. But unfortunately I have had more than my share of rubbish ones.
What makes a good bearnaise sauce?
Bearnaise sauce is made of few ingredients: essentially eggs, butter, vinegar and herbs. Like so many things made with so little, if the balance of flavours is not right, the sauce won’t be right. And not just the flavours matter, but the thickness of the sauce, and how smooth it is. I have had more bad bearnaise sauces than good ones, and the most disappointing ones are usually when the sauce is too watery and thin, or too bland.
Making your own bearnaise sauce
Obviously the way to get the best bearnaise sauce is to crack making your own well, and although there are things which could go wrong, as long as you follow the basic steps, you should end up with a delicious bearnaise. I base mine on Nigella’s recipe from How to Eat, but have simplified the ingredients list slightly to make my life easier (hers includes chervil and I have never found any, and I also never use white wine in mine – just vinegar – as I would never open a bottle for a slug of wine … unless it was for me to drink!). Don’t be daunted, but do follow the rules! It’s utter perfection with steak and chips!
And recently I made some to have with roast beef for Sunday Lunch!
The basic steps for bearnaise sauce
First you need to make a flavour base which gives bearnaise sauce its classic vinegary taste – white wine vinegar and water are boiled together with tarragon stalks, shallots and peppercorns until reduced to about a tablespoon of liquid.
Reduction ingredients after:
This reduction is whisked together with egg yolks in a bowl suspended over simmering water (called a bain marie), while you throw in chunks of butter.
Continuous whisking ensures that the oily butter mixes with the egg yolks, while the whole concoction slowly thickens as the eggs cook.
Add a squeeze of lemon juice, salt, pepper, and chopped tarragon at the end, and there you have it: bearnaise sauce.
What could go wrong when making bearnaise sauce?
This is of course the part which concerns so many people, but for me the pitfalls of making bearnaise are easy to avoid:
- Make sure your vinegar reduction is only a tablespoon full – any more will water down your eggs too much for the sauce to work properly (and of course make sure you use the correct amount of egg yolks).
- Gently heat the eggs – don’t heat the eggs too quickly otherwise they will start to scramble.
- Whisk constantly while you add the butter – if you don’t whisk your eggs properly when you add the butter, the eggs and oil from the butter will separate and you’ll end up with a yucky split mixture of oil and scrambled egg!
What if I don’t want to make bearnaise sauce?
Well, I highly recommend that you do make the sauce yourself, but if you really don’t want to, then I suggest that Maille bearnaise sauce is an ok substitute, although really once you have made your own, or eaten a really good one, you’ll realise how inferior the jarred or packet (or – horror – powder) versions are.
What to do with bearnaise sauce leftovers
I find any leftover sauce can sit at room temperature without splitting or solidifying too much, and can be used the following day as an accompaniment to more beef, chicken, vegetables like new potatoes or asparagus, or salmon. The egg whites which you will separate from the yolks needed for this recipe … well, of course you could make a pavlova, or an egg white omelette, or add the whites to scrambled eggs etc. I unfortunately have a cemetery of frozen egg whites at the bottom of my freezer – I always pop them into freezer bags (obviously not writing on the bag how many egg whites are inside, because that would be too sensible) and stash them, and then eventually throw them away after a few months when I realise I am never going to use them. You only need about a third of the pack of fresh tarragon, and I find that after having steak and bearnaise sauce I don’t really fancy tarragon again immediately, so I usually throw it away, but if you do want to use it in the few days after opening the pack of herbs, it works brilliantly with chicken, and robust fish like salmon.
- 2 shallots or use half a white onion
- 2 Tbsp Chopped tarragon leaves Keep the stalks for the reduction
- 4 tbsp white wine vinegar
- 1 Pinch Crushed black peppercorns
- 3 Egg yolks
- 200 g Butter
- 1 tsp lemon juice I use jif lemon if I don’t have fresh!
- Firstly make the reduction: roughly chop the shallot or onion and place in a small saucepan with the tarragon leaves, vinegar, peppercorns and a splash of water. Bring to the boil and simmer until the liquid has reduced to around a tablespoon full. This should only take a couple of minutes so be careful not to let it boil dry.
- Strain the reduction into a heat proof bowl (I use a Pyrex bowl) annd allow it to cool, then whisk in the 3 egg yolks, and place the bowl over a saucepan of simmering water.
- Continuously whisk the eggs while adding spoons of butter. Whisk each piece of butter until it has melted before adding the next piece of butter.
- When the butter has all been whisked into the eggs, continue to whisk the mixture until it thickens slightly. When you move the whisk through the sauce, it should leave a trail which slowly disappears.
- Add lemon juice, salt and pepper, and the chopped tarragon leaves. Stir and remove from heat. As the sauce cools it will thicken further.
- Serve on the side of steak and chips, or with a piece of salmon.
- Never look back, and refuse to buy inferior versions from the shops!
Bearnaise sauce reviews
My least favourite bearnaise sauces have been in places like Cafe Rouge, Bills, and similar style brasseries. At places like this, I find the sauce is too watery and tasteless. Good ones have been in Hawksmoor and The Wolseley (photo below). As I mentioned, for shop-bought, I think Maille bearnaise sauce is about the best. I did buy a packet of powder to make into a bearnaise once and it was revolting so if possible avoid any like that!