Why This Recipe Works
- Constant whisking and heat management ensures a properly emulsified sauce that won’t break.
- A slightly lower amount of wine vinegar at the outset allows you to dial in the acidity of the sauce at the end.
What do you get when you take the yolk out of a hollandaise?
Oh, sorry, but this isn’t the setup to a joke. No, it’s much drier than that, I’m afraid—it’s how I’m introducing beurre blanc, which is the answer I was looking for. If you want to understand beurre blanc, it can be helpful to think of it as a yolk-less hollandaise, the mother of emulsified butter sauces. Both sauces create a thick and creamy sauce that holds together without breaking, with the fatty richness of butter balanced by a bright note of acidity. In the case of hollandaise, we take advantage of the emulsifying powers of an egg yolk to do it. With beurre blanc, we just whisk like hell (and also rely on some more minor emulsifiers to help us out).
What is Beurre Blanc?
Beurre blanc is a butter-based sauce that originally comes from Brittany, France. This is why the sauce is also sometimes called beurre nantais, after the city of Nantes in Brittany. While beurre blanc is not one of French cuisine’s classic group of “mother sauces” or their derivatives, it does, as I mentioned above, have a lot in common with hollandaise.
Beurre blanc has a history that goes back at least a few centuries, but it wasn’t too long ago that it was relatively unknown outside of the regions where it was prepared. My 1961 copy of Larousse Gastronomique, for example, has no recipe for it, though it does have an entry for beurre fondu, which is an incredibly similar (and even simpler) sauce based on the same basic principle: Melt butter into a small amount of water while whisking to maintain the butter’s emulsion and prevent it from breaking.
According to James Peterson in his magnum opus on sauces (it’s called Sauces), beurre blanc’s breakout moment came in the late 1960s, when a handful of Parisian chefs embraced and popularized the sauce among their more cosmopolitan and global audience, raising it from regional specialty to international sauce of mystery (mystery because there’s a lot of unnecessary superstition around how it’s made…it’s really not that hard).
Let’s get to a cleaner definition of beurre blanc and how it’s made: It is a sauce made by simmering dry white wine with white wine vinegar and finely minced shallots until almost all of the liquid has evaporated. Then cubed cold butter is whisked in such that it melts while remaining emulsified, resulting in a thickened, creamy sauce. While it sounds like a risky endeavor, the truth is that beurre blanc is pretty easy to do successfully, all you have to do is keep whisking and make sure the sauce doesn’t get too hot, which is the surest way it will break. The sauce’s name, which translates as “white butter” is most likely a reference to the opaque and creamy white color of the finished sauce, which is dramatically different from the foamy, golden, and translucent appearance of butter that has melted and broken.
There are a few particularly lovely things about beurre blanc. One, it’s a very quick sauce to whip up, yet is undeniably elegant, making it an appealing choice as far as effort-to-fanciness ratios go. Two, it’s versatile because…what isn’t better with butter? Fish is the most obvious pairing, with the beurre blanc offering a richness as well as a bright note of acidity, but it’s also great with chicken, pork, and vegetables. Frankly, I don’t think a piece of beef would be unhappy to see it. And third, it lends itself well to variation within its small ingredient list: You can use red wine instead of white wine, lemon juice instead of the wine and vinegar, and flavor it a million different ways. It is truly a blank slate just asking to be played with.
Beurre Blanc Key Ingredients and Ratios
Basic beurre blanc requires very few ingredients. Here they are, in order of appearance:
- Dry white wine: Wine is one of the two acid-offering flavorings in a beurre blanc. You can use any dry (not sweet) white wine. Classic recipes tend to recommend more crisp and tart wines, not oaky buttery ones, though honestly any dry white wine will do.
- White wine vinegar: White wine vinegar is required to punch up the comparatively softer acidity of the white wine—we need an effect more along the lines of “squeeze of lemon,” and the vinegar helps get us there. Many recipes call for equal parts vinegar to white wine, though I use half as much vinegar to start, and then adjust the flavor at the end by whisking an extra teaspoon or two (or more) into the sauce if I think it needs it.
- Shallot: Finely minced shallots are simmered in the wine and vinegar, which both softens the shallots and pulls their complex allium flavor into the wine-vinegar base.
- Butter: This is the main ingredient in the sauce, and without a doubt you can taste it. Any butter will make a great sauce, but a quality butter with more flavor will shine. While melted butter typically breaks into its constituent components of butterfat, milk solids, and water, it does contain some natural emulsifiers that make it possible to maintain the emulsion even as butter heats if you keep whisking.
- Salt: Salt needs little introduction, it’s here to season the sauce. Add it to taste, and of course if you use salted butter, you may not need additional salt at all.
- Pepper (optional): Only if you want it, but if you do add it, remember that it will speckle the creamy white sauce with little black specks. That doesn’t need to be considered a problem, but if it is, you can turn to white pepper instead.
The Importance of Controlling Heat
Making beurre blanc involves melting the butter, but the difficulty is that when butter heats, it breaks, and it doesn’t have to get too hot for that to happen. The most important thing when making beurre blanc, then, is controlling the temperature. We need to get the butter it hot enough to melt and create a warm sauce, but we do not want any part of it to overheat and break.
There are a few important techniques for this:
- Use a good saucepan, or, better, a saucier. A fully clad stainless-steel saucepan with an aluminum or copper core will spread the heat evenly across the pot and minimize the development of hot spots. Thinner, lower-quality pans and pans clad only on the bottom are both more prone to hot spots that could ruin the emulsion in a sauce like this.
- Whisk constantly. Just as an evenly heated pan is helpful for success, so is an evenly heated sauce. By rapidly and constantly whisking all over the pan, a fairly stable temperature is maintained as the butter melts. Stop for just a few moments and areas of the sauce can overheat and break the sauce. Plus, whisking has the obvious role of mechanically beating the fat and water phases together, which is essential for an emulsion like this to form and hold.
- Manage the heat. This of course means raising or lowering the burner heat as needed so the butter melts and the sauce forms, but in practice, once I start whisking, I do a lot less burner adjustment and a lot more moving the pan on and off the heat as I constantly whisk to regulate the temperature; it’s just easier to maintain constant whisking if you’re holding the whisk in one hand and the saucepan’s handle in the other, lifting and lowering the saucepan as needed to and from the heat.
Do You Really Need to Add the Butter in Increments?
Most recipes for beurre blanc say to add the cubed butter in increments, adding the next only once the prior addition has almost entirely melted into the sauce. The truth is you can add the butter all it once, it won’t change anything—the sauce is no more likely to break if all the butter is in the pan or not. In practice, though, I usually do add it in at least a few additions, just because I find it harder to whisk if the saucepan is loaded with cubes of butter. But if you want to chuck more in at once, know you can, it won’t harm anything.
How to Keep Beurre Blanc Warm Without Breaking
The risk of beurre blanc breaking continues after it’s made, which is why it’s generally best to prepare it right before serving. Sometimes, though, we need to hold it for a little while, and there are a few ways to do that.
The first thing to know is beurre blanc is not a sauce that is served hot—it’s too prone to breaking for that. Warm is more or less what one should expect with a sauce like this. So one way to hold beurre blanc is to just stick it in a warm place. If you want to have more control over it, though, you can submerge a metal container of beurre blanc into a larger pot or container filled with warm, but not hot, water—say around 110°F (45°C) or so.
If you want an even more temperature-controlled setup, you could run a sous-vide immersion circulator set to 110°F and hold the vessel of beurre blanc in that. This will keep the sauce at a proper serving temperature for a long time.
One thing to note, though, is beurre blanc can thicken over time as it sits, the result of water evaporating out of the sauce. Be sure to whisk in a tablespoon or two of water if you notice it thickening.
Just as important as keeping the sauce warm before serving is keeping it warm upon serving: A cold plate will chill the sauce immediately. This is a case where you absolutely should warm your plates before serving.
To Strain or Not to Strain?
If you want a smooth beurre blanc without the little bits of minced shallot, you can pass it through a fine-mesh strainer (you’ll likely want to rewarm if after that, as straining alone is enough to cool the sauce). I personally love the texture of the shallot in the sauce, so I’ve never opted to strain my beurre blanc, but you can if you want.
How to Save a Broken Beurre Blanc
If your beurre blanc begins to break, saving it is often as easy as whisking in some a splash or two of cool water. This may not work if it fully separates, but if you see the butterfat starting to bead on the sauce, you have a window of opportunity where a splash of water and some rapid whisking can bring the sauce back (just like a pan sauce).
If not, well then, you’ll be serving a broken butter sauce, which is its own completely legitimate category of butter sauces, so all is not lost. Just tell your guests that was the plan all along and you’ll be fine—marketing my friends, it’s all marketing.
Beurre Blanc Variations
A classic beurre blanc with white wine and white wine vinegar is just the start. From there, you can use the same basic method to create all sorts of variantes. Here are some ideas:
- Use red wine instead of white to make a sauce called beurre rouge.
- Use beer instead of wine to make “beer blanc.”
- Use different vinegars in place of the white wine vinegar: cider vinegar, red wine vinegar, etc.
- Get rid of the vinegar complete and use lemon juice to make a sauce called beurre citron.
- Drop the shallot and try a different allium: garlic, leek, onion will each create a new spin on the sauce.
- Add flavorings: Spices, ground chile peppers, herbs, soy sauce, miso, and so many other ingredients can add a different twist to the sauce and open it up to new pairing ideas.
Like hollandaise sauce, but without the egg yolks.
- 1/4 cup (60ml) dry white wine
- 2 tablespoons (30ml) white wine vinegar, plus more if needed
- One medium shallot (2 ounces; 57g), finely minced
- 1 1/2 sticks (170g) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pats
- Kosher or sea salt
- Freshly ground black or white pepper (optional)
In a small saucepan or saucier, heat wine, vinegar, and shallot over medium heat until simmering. Cook at a simmer, swirling and stirring occasionally, until liquid is almost fully evaporated and only 1 or 2 tablespoons remain.
Working with a few pats of butter at a time, whisk butter into reduced wine base, whisking constantly, until just melted and a milky emulsion forms (the sauce should not look broken). Immediately add 2 or 3 more pats of butter and continue to whisk until just melted. Repeat this process until all the remaining butter has been melted into the sauce and a stable emulsion has formed; remove the pan from heat and/or lower the heat at any point if it seems to be getting too hot and at risk of breaking. Season with salt.
Note that after the last piece of butter has melted into the sauce, the sauce may be tepid; if it is, carefully continue to heat it while whisking constantly until warmed through, but be careful not to overheat, which will cause it to break. Serve beurre blanc right away or keep warm until ready to serve (see make ahead below); it is best served on warmed plates in order to maintain a proper serving temperature for the sauce.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Beurre blanc is best made right before serving, but can be held in a warm place or warm-water bath for up to a few hours (see section above on making the sauce ahead for more instruction). Be sure to re-whisk occasionally and add a tablespoon or two of water over time to prevent the sauce from over-thickening and breaking.