Courting Controversy: Sauce Béarnaise

I am going to get heat from purists and food snobs for this. But does my face look bothered?

Seeing as Nigella Lawson copped hate for publishing HER VERSION of that Italian classic , spaghetti carbonara, I thought I’d join in and publish my sacrilegious version of the ultimate accompaniment to steak (or indeed any flash fried red meat).

It’s not that I don’t respect the classics, it’s just a case of making something work for you depending on factors like budget or natural ability. I am extremely clumsy in the kitchen, for example, and sometimes cook off the cuff without planning ahead.

I don’t need to tell you what sauce béarnaise is…an emulsion of egg yolks, butter, flavoured with white wine vinegar and tarragon, a ‘child’ sauce of that liquid primrose river of dreams, sauce hollandaise, one of the five ‘mother sauces’. My way plays fast and loose with the traditional method as given by the greats such as Escoffier, and I realise I’d be committing high treason by calling this authentic sauce béarnaise, but it’s authentic to me and carries the key flavourings of tarragon, spiked with the sharp tang of vinegar.

If you were making this the proper French way, you would begin with a reduction of white wine, wine vinegar, shallots, chervil and fresh tarragon, and you would whisk your butter into the egg yolks in a bowl barely touching some simmering water. Me? I do away with the reduction bit, use dried tarragon and distilled malt vinegar (yes, the clear stuff you’d use to clean your house), and I cook the sauce directly into a saucepan. I served this to a guy on a sort of date with venison and kale (as the pictures show), and this guy was very into cooking himself and he described it as excellent. So, go figure.

The method is based upon Felicity Cloake’s How To Cook Perfect Hollandaise, and you can scale it up or down depending on how many you’re cooking for. Mine serves two generously (or even one greedy person) or up to four delicately.

Sauce Béarnaise



2 large egg yolks

1 tbsp water

125g cold salted butter, cubed

Dried tarragon, to taste. At least 1tsp as you want its flavour pronounced

Generous splash distilled malt vinegar (or whatever vinegar you have)

  1. In a pan over a very low heat, place all ingredients except vinegar and begin whisking. DO NOT leave the pan, or be tempted to turn up the heat to speed things up. This sauce waits for nobody, not checking Twitter, replying to WhatsApp or making a brew. You have to whisk CONSTANTLY.
  2. As the butter melts, the sauce will begin to thicken. Do not stop whisking. Don’t be afraid to remove from the heat briefly as you whisk. If by any chance it does start to split, you can place over cold water and whisk like crazy, hopefully it should return to homogenous joy…but just take great care to not overheat.
  3. Keep whisking, be patient, and it should thicken up. Think of this as hot mayonnaise. When it is thickened to your liking, remove from heat and season to taste before splashing in vinegar, again to taste. You want some sharpness but not overwhelming acid.
  4. Béarnaise is fine at room temperature; in fact it’s preferred, unlike it’s more sensitive to heat mother, hollandaise, so make this up before you cook your steaks. Serve with your meal and bask in the smugness of making one of the greatest classic French sauces ever invented.




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