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Beurre Blanc - The Perfect Finish for Fine Seafood

Salmon Beurre Blanc

Some would argue that sauces comprise the very heart and soul of French cooking. Whether or not you agree, it's hard to refute the importance of sauces in many of the more famous French dishes.

Historically, sauces have played an important role in cooking since early Roman times. Marcus Gavius Apicius, to whom we attribute one of the earliest cookbooks around the first century AD,  wrote about sauces. Not much of the original work survives, but we do know that Garum, an early form of fish sauce was an important ingredient in Roman cooking. Few cookbooks survive the period earlier than 1700 because cooking was much like a guild, where people had to apprentice in order to learn the trade. You learned by doing, not reading.

It wasn't until Antoine Careme (1784-1833), that we had codified recipes of what we refer to as "Mother" sauces. Among other things, Careme defined what we came to know as French Haute Cuisine. Careme identified four basic sauces from which all other sauces were born. Hence the term "mother" sauces.

Careme's procedures unfortunately, are very complicated.  Some of his brown sauces require days to prepare and are very expensive to replicate. Fortunately for us, almost a century later, Georges Auguste Escoffier simplified Careme's complicated process for making mother sauces and added another: Hollandaise. I find it fascinating that Thomas Keller, one of the most influential chefs in the world today, began his early career trying to perfect hollandaise.

The five "mother" sauces are béchamel, veloute, tomat (aka tomato sauce), brune (aka brown or espagnola), and hollandaise. These are the five sauces from which all other sauces are born. If you know how to prepare these five sauces, you can make any other sauce by simply modifying a few ingredients.

Next time you go to a nice restaurant, take a look at the menu and see if you can identify the sauces they are using.  Béchamel is a white cream sauce. The base is usually whole milk. Derivatives are cheese sauce, mustard sauce, and mornay. Veloute is a white stock with chicken, fish or veal as a base. One of the more famous derivatives is white wine sauce.

Tomat, or tomato sauce is just as the name implies and all tomato based sauces are derivatives. Brown sauce uses roasted meat as a base, and the pan drippings, or "roux" is used to thicken and flavor. Many traditional gravies are a form of brown sauce.

One of my favorite sauces is hollandaise. It's made with clarified butter and egg yolks. Some of its derivatives include mayonnaise, béarnaise and crème anglais. That brings me to point out something I figured out some time ago. The French tend to name a sauce after a place that popularized it. That's why you have names like "Béarnaise", "Hollandaise", "Bordelaise",  "Lyonaise" and so on. Sometimes they even go so far as to name a sauce after the chef, such as "Sauce Robert".

In the states it's a little bit easier to figure out what the sauce is (depending on the chef of course). You are more likely to see descriptive terms like: "cream sauce with tarragon and fresh herb", or "tomato basil sauce". Personally, I like to know what the chef is putting into the sauces so I have a better idea of how to pair with wine or other dishes when I'm ordering a meal.

What prompted me to write this article was having to research a wine pairing I was doing the other day. While I prefer the freedom of cooking without recipes, occasionally I have to refer to a particular recipe for sake of consistency and happened to see one I use a lot.  It's called Beurre Blanc (aka white butter sauce).  It's amazing when served with fish or seafood, and you can use almost any white wine to add particular nuances to the flavor.  I think you'll agree the sauce makes the dish, and this one you'll want to remember!

Tradition holds that Beurre Blanc was actually discovered accidently by chef Clemence Lefeuvre, a woman chef with her own restaurant in the early 1900's in the hamlet of La Chebuette. She was apparently trying to make a Béarnaise for some pike but forgot to add the tarragon and egg yolks. The result was a success and she served it in her restaurant for many years afterwards.

Beurre Blanc Recipe

Makes 2 cups of beurre blanc sauce.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • ½ cup white wine vinegar
  • 1 Tbsp finely chopped shallot
  • 1 lb unsalted butter, cold
  • Kosher salt, to taste

Preparation:

Heat wine, vinegar and shallots in a saucepan until the liquid boils, then lower the heat a bit and continue simmering until the liquid has reduced down to about 2 tablespoons. This should take about 10 minutes.

While the liquid reduces you can cut the butter into medium (½-inch) cubes, but either leave this until the reduction is nearly finished or return the butter cubes to the refrigerator to keep them cold while the liquid finishes reducing.

Once the wine-vinegar mixture has reduced to 2 tablespoons, reduce the heat to low and start adding the cubes of butter, one or two at a time, and whisk rapidly with a wire whisk.

As the butter melts and incorporates, add more butter and keep whisking. Continue until you only have 2-3 cubes remaining. Remove from heat while whisking in the last few cubes, and whisk for a moment or two more. The finished sauce should be thick and smooth.

Season to taste with Kosher salt. Traditionally the shallots would be strained out before serving, but doing so is optional. Serve right away.

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