Hollandaise sauce is the lifeblood of the brunch-industrial complex. You want brunch—which is to say, you want eggs Benedict, the totemic brunchstuff, and maybe like some strawberries or quiche or whatever else goes with brunch? I dunno, I just really want some eggs Benedict, and it’s 11:30 already—but don’t know how to make Hollandaise sauce, and you read somewhere once that it’s the trickiest thing to make, and to tell the truth you’re not actually sure what Hollandaise sauce even is: Is it orange juice and champagne whipped together? And so you go out for brunch, and spend 23 bucks on eggs Benedict and 11 more on a glass of V8 with a shot of well vodka and a thawed cocktail shrimp in it, and the chef cackles evilly behind the porthole glass of the kitchen door, this phony-baloney Leftover Buffet invent-a-meal rendered profitable beyond all reason by the allure of this mysterious yellow substance.
It’s butter and egg yolks. Fight the power.
No, really, that’s all it is. Melted butter and egg yolks, with a little bit of acid to help combine them and give the final result the familiar slight tang, and maybe some salt and pepper, or maybe not. Now you wait just a goddamn minute, here, you are hissing through your teeth, bug-eyed, seething with outrage, creating quite by accident a memory that will haunt the nightmares of the small child seated at the adjoining library computer for the rest of her life: Do you mean to tell me that eggs Benedict is just eggs with egg yolks on them, you sonofabitch? Yes! It’s a scandal. On the other hand, it tastes divine, velvety and buttery and impossibly rich, with that acidity cutting through just enough to keep you salivating, to keep you on the hook. Well-made Hollandaise sauce is a masterwork of the human race.
Which might make you wonder, reasonably, why we don’t put Hollandaise sauce on more stuff—why, since it’s so tasty and made with such ho-hum everyday ingredients, we don’t just pour it over everything all the time. The answer, of course, is that many of our most popular ideologies and belief systems prohibit suicide, while Hollandaise sauce carries a nutritional load roughly comparable in overall healthfulness to firing an actual harpoon gun directly into your own liver. The other answer, though—the one more germane to our purposes here, where such considerations as “Will I live to see 50?” are scattered to the winds—is that it’s a huge damn pain in the ass to make.
Consider what you know of egg yolks. They exist and are yellow. Aaaaaand scene! But then, also, consider what someone who knows anything about eggs yolks knows: crucially, that they coagulate, or begin to thicken and turn solid, at around 150 degrees. This is tricky, because you do actually have to cook this stuff, in order to bring the elements together successfully and thicken the yolks enough to produce the rich texture Hollandaise sauce must have, so that you will not get sent back to the hospital for appearing to have poured a cup of buttermilk over your food. But 150 degrees is a pretty damn low temperature, and sometimes hard to stay under on your basic stovetop without turning that stovetop all the way off.
And then there’s the intimidating science word emulsion, which refers to a mixture of two liquids that usually resist mixing, such as oil and water. Melted butter and raw egg yolk are two such liquids: they don’t like mixing with each other, and you really have to beat the crap out of them—really, the entire process of making Hollandaise sauce is just beating the ever-loving hell out of these two liquids—to change their minds. Imperfect Hollandaise sauce will show signs of separation—beads of melted butter, mostly—that are instantly noticeable. This, too, contributes to Hollandaise’s overall pain-in-the-ass-ness.
Chefs, TV chefs, and cookbook writers have devised any number of zany ways of making this finicky sauce. The Joy of Cooking has you use whole eggs, whites included, and whisk them into hot melted butter. Alton Brown uses teeny cubes of cold butter and whisks them into warmed and thickened yolks away from the heat of the stove, emulsifying them as they melt; it takes forever but safeguards against separation. Auguste Escoffier, the legendary French chef whose name is the most fun thing to say, somehow managed to drizzle warm melted butter steadily into warm, thickened egg yolks while also whisking furiously, which is to say that he either had three arms or a kitchen assistant, or got Hollandaise sauce all over the place all the time. Your stoner roommate the jaded line-cook just puts a bunch of egg yolks in the blender, squeezes half a lemon onto them, turns the blender on, pours in hot melted butter, and lets God sort it out.
Your technique is kind of a happy median. It’s a little friendlier to the solo cook than Escoffier’s; it’s a lot less time-consuming than Brown’s; it gives you some measure of control, unlike your roommate’s; it is not full of bland egg whites, unlike The Joy of Cooking’s; it does not involve double-boiling, which is the worst activity a person can undertake shy of viewing one of the Paul Blart movies. It’s also similar to Julia Child’s method, which is the best thing you can ever say about anything. Let’s do it.
The first thing to do is acquire, and soften, a half-pound of good butter. Butter is the primary ingredient in Hollandaise sauce, and you’ll notice the difference between good shit and less-good shit. So, get some of the good shit. The fancy Euro butter with the silly foil wrapper. Don’t sweat whether it’s salted or unsalted; just make sure it’s good.
As for softening it, just let it sit, in its wrapper, on the countertop overnight. This is a pretty important step: Later on, you’ll be trying to scoop spoonfuls off the main butter mass with one hand while whisking a pan of egg yolks with the other, and if the butter puts up a fight, the whole operation is going to go to hell.
(A note on butter. Many Hollandaise preparations insist on using clarified butter—butter from which the milk solids have been removed. This makes the Hollandaise stiffer and improves its stability, but it loses some richness and luster, too. We’re making it with whole butter, both because it tastes better this way, and because doing it this way removes the steps involved in clarifying butter, which is nice because we all have our own goddamn lives to live, here.)
Now, separate three egg yolks from their surrounding whites. If you have your own method for doing this, go for it; if not, you’ve got a couple of options. The first is to very gently crack an egg open and then pass its contents back and forth from one half of the shell to the other a few times; the process will cause the white to separate and fall away, leaving the yolk all by itself in a little shell-cup. Do this over the sink!
The other option is the plastic-water-bottle method, helpfully demonstrated by this charming lady:
It’s just the coolest thing. Her jacket, I mean. Cool jacket. But the egg trick is pretty rad, too.
Anyway, you need three yolks. Once you’ve got ‘em, whisk your yolks together in a saucepan or saucier pan with a tablespoon each of water and freshly squeezed lemon juice*. The water and lemon juice are there to help form the emulsion; you can think of them as a pair of mediators, if the thought of dumping a pair of mediators into a saucepan isn’t too upsetting. Give this stuff a good solid minute of strenuous whisking; at the end of it, you’ll notice that the mixture is thicker and paler than when you started, and that your wrist is already a little bit sore. Oh, you poor, doomed sucker. It’s gonna be so much worse! How we suffer for our emulsions.
*About that lemon juice. The most traditional-minded Hollandaise preparations use a mixture of dry white wine and white-wine vinegar for their acid, and ask you to reduce this almost to nothing before combining it with the yolks. If that’s what you want to do, suit yourself. Others leave out the wine and use various vinegars, and that’s okay, too. Lemon works just fine, though, and nowadays it’s probably the most common acid you’ll encounter in Hollandaise sauces.
Next, put your pan of yolk mixture over low(-ish) heat on the stove and continue whisking its contents. You don’t need a violent, frenzied whisking action, here—just some steady, energetic whisking, making sure you’re reaching every part of the pan to prevent the mixture from heating up too much in one place. Keep a close eye on the proceedings, and every 20 seconds or so, move the pan off the heat altogether for a solid five count to keep it from heating too much. As the yolk mixture warms up, your whisking action will cause it to expand in volume and first become frothy, and then to thicken, and also it will cause your arm to feel like it might fall off of your person.
Listen. This part is annoying and somewhat fraught. The whisking and the worrying about the heat and the whisking and the whisking. This is the cost of liberation from our brunch overlords. Freedom isn’t free, you know? It is both wondrous and costly! But seize it we must. Whisk and whisk and whisk, and mind the heat, and whisk and whisk.
Eventually, the yolk mixture will thicken to the point that, when you drag your whisk through it, the wires of the whisk leave brief streaks in which you can see the bottom of the pan. Remove the pan from the heat, but keep the burner on.
Now, working one spoonful at a time, and whisking with the other hand all the while, add the butter to the pan. Take your time with this, and focus. Add a spoonful of butter to the pan, then put the spoon down, grab the handle of the pan with that hand, and whisk like the dickens with the other, until that spoonful is fully melted and incorporated. If you need to take a couple of seconds to wag your aching whisk-hand and growl I fucking hate this so fucking much, that’s fine—but, just a couple of seconds, okay? At least until the current spoonful of butter is all the way whisked into the stuff in the pan.
If you feel like the stuff in the pan is getting too cool, hold it over the still-hot burner for a few seconds to warm it up just a tad. If you feel like it’s getting too thick, add a splash of water. If it looks like it’s separating—if you can see beads or streaks of melted butter in it—splash some water into it and whisk it until it’s smooth again before you resume adding butter. If you feel like, what the hell, an hour-long wait for the privilege of spending a week’s pay on brunch at a restaurant doesn’t seem so bad anymore, you can just march yourself straight to hell, buddy.
Otherwise, whisk, damn you. Whisk and whisk and add butter and whisk. Pain? What pain! You are impervious to pain. You scoff at it, for it is as nothing to you. Especially after the nerves in your arm die from all the whisking. Whisk and whisk and whisk.
At some point—if you stick with this, instead of melting your whisk in a fire and cursing its twisted remains to hell—the contents of your pan will develop into something thick, smooth, lustrous, and beautifully pale-yellow-colored, causing you to understand all at once that most of what you have been receiving in various brunch joints over the years has come from a powdered mix. Hollandaise sauce. Dip the tip of a spoon into it, taste, gather up and throw in the trash the flaps and scraps of your exploded pants, and season your Hollandaise sauce to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper. Some people like white pepper, here, but the black stuff’s fine, too.
Hey, you made Hollandaise sauce! Aaaaaand now you are painting yourself with it. Cool.
What will you serve your Hollandaise sauce with? Damn, we probably should have covered that at the top, huh? Actually, it’s no big deal: You serve Hollandaise lukewarm anyway, and it can hang out for a couple of hours before you’ll need to either consume it, refrigerate it, or let it get yucky, so you’ve got some time to figure out what to do with it if you haven’t already. Of course it’s just lovely over poached eggs in the familiar eggs Benedict formulation; it’s insanely, ludicrously decadent and satisfying over some seared (or grilled and sliced) steak, or fish. It’ll add a pleasing dash of irresponsibility to your steamed or roasted vegetable of choice, but probably don’t ladle it into a mug and drink it, no seriously, I like Hollandaise sauce as much as the next guy, but that’s gross, man.
The point, here, is that you can decide for yourself how to enjoy this stuff. You are not bound by the incoherent selection of vaguely French-ish breakfast items and warmed-over dinner-menu castoffs that make up the typical restaurant’s brunch menu. You have achieved liberating self-sufficiency! You have vanquished the brunch-industrial complex, and may approach it henceforth as its equal, free to take it or leave it as you please. That’s something to be proud of. You’ll think so, too, in six weeks, when you regain the use of your hand.
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Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. His writing appeared in Best Food Writing 2014 by DaCapo Press. Peevishly correct his foolishness on Twitter @albertburneko, or send him your creepy longform hate-missives at firstname.lastname@example.org. Image by Sam Woolley.