25 June 2010

The Problem with Hollandaise (and a great hack)

Breaking Benjamin... I mean Hollandaise

Hollandaise is notoriously tricky - ask anyone. The preparation is classic, and there are a lot of rules to making it. Professional chefs around the world tout the classic method of making this sauce: the double boiler method. This is how I was taught to make Hollandaise in college (big shout out to my instructor, Linda Kinney, but by no means is this a direct quote):

"Reduce vinegar (or lemon juice) with a few peppercorns in a double boiler over low simmering water. Remove the peppercorns and add in your egg yolks. Whisk like mad until they double in volume, but be careful not to over heat and scramble your yolks. Then remove your bowl, put it on a towel wrapped in a circle to insulate the bowl and keep it steady while you whisk like mad again as you pour hot melted butter into your yolks. Make sure there are no open windows or drafts, because this will break your sauce."

And break it did. My cooking partner and I totally forgot to close the window (mostly because I thought that the warning was crap), and our sauce... well, it went to that great Sauce Pot in the sky. Alas. The fun part was, since we had time left in class, we got to start all over again, only this time, we had to get it right.

Now, I love cooking, I have since I was 10 and my dad taught me how to make Quaker Oats without a microwave, but this Hollandaise thing, it was getting on my last nerve! Generally speaking, you give me a recipe, maybe show me how to do the tricky part, and I can do it, no problem. I can follow a recipe, but this sauce...Again, love cooking, but I have NO patience for my own failure. And this sauce made me feel like a great big fat failure, a feeling I'm used to in some settings, but not in the kitchen. From that point, I was content to simply get my Hollandaise on a good Eggs Benedict, and savor it as a special occasion. (Plug here on the side, Brig's in Durham NC make the best Eggs Benedict - and variations on that theme- on the planet!)

 My Foodie Phobia

I didn't even attempt it again until last year, when I found a recipe that used the blender. No double boiler, just put some yolks and acid in your blender, whip for a minute, then slowly add HOT butter (like almost boiling) while the blender runs. No fail, woo! And so, I was sucked back in to the world of Hollandaise. Even when restaurants make it from scratch, it doesn't really compare to making it at home, with organic eggs and Irish butter. Then Mardi at eat.live.travel.write posted about her Kitchen Bootcamp Challenge last month, where she was charged with the task of making a sauce. She chose the ever-tricky Hollandaise, and damn was it beautiful.

And I felt like a hack. A blender? Who uses a blender to make Hollandaise? That's like using a microwave to make Quaker Oats... no, it's just not right. I sit here and claim to be a foodie, and I can't even make a dang sauce? And of course, with Spargel season going on full tilt this past month, Hollandaise was everywhere. A fire had ignited inside of me, a burning desire to make the attempt again.

The Problem?

My kitchen inventory consists of the following:
  • Service and storage: 2 Corelle plates, 4 plastic bowls. 3 glasses, 2 wine glasses, 2 sekt glasses, 2 rocks glasses, 2 coffee mugs, 2 Rüdesheimer Kaffee mugs and saucers. Oh, and some leftover 500 ml yogurt tubs (since we're too cheap to buy Tupperware while we're here)
  • Cookware: a 10" skillet, a 6" skillet, a 3-4 liter pot, one 4" x 6" plastic cutting board (any bigger and it wouldn't fit on our counter)
  • Eating Utensils: 3 forks, 3 large spoons, 6 dessert spoons, 3 dinner knives, 2 Rüdesheimer Kaffee spoons (don't ask)
  • Cooking utensils: 1 plastic spoon, 1 very sad slotted plastic spatula, 1 vegetable peeler, 1 5" long whisk, 1 carving knife, knife sharpener

Yeah, and I wanted to make Hollandaise sauce. But I didn't want to buy any more kitchen stuff. We're only out here until October. I thought, well, maybe mayo would be easier. It's practically the same thing, still delicious, but all room temp, and you never heard about someone's mayo separating. The problem is, even though mayo is tasty, a gorgeous butter-based Hollandaise is still better, plus, then you get bragging rights.

A Theory Starts Brewing

Mardi's post got me thinking. Her method called for warming the eggs AFTER whisking. I had learned it the other way around. Then it occurred to me. Mayo is made by mixing room temperature egg yolks and room temperature oil. Hollandaise is made with butter, which HAS to be warm in order to be liquid. Hollandaise breaks because of temperature fluctuations - maybe the yolks are heated simply to bring them to a similar temperature with the butter. Cookbooks always explain that you heat the yolks to "cook" them, but since Hollandaise was invented far before the concept of the "danger zone" (I would imagine), maybe there's more to it than that.

This is when I realized one inevitable problem with the classic method. You do all your mixing in a stainless steel bowl. Stainless steel is great for a double boiler, because it's a great conductor of heat. Unfortunately, that great conductivity is the inherent flaw that (I inferred) causes one's emulsion to break. What if we could simply make the sauce in a better insulated material, like, I don't know, maybe plastic?

And then I thought about the emulsion itself. In case you're unsure what I'm talking about, an emulsion is what you get when you mix together 2 liquids that otherwise don't want to be friends. A classic Italian salad dressing always needs to shaken to mix it together (to emulsify it) otherwise the fat (oil) and vinegar separate, just like the boys and girls at a middle school dance.

So I got to thinking again. What is it that's emulsifying in a Hollandaise? Yolks are mostly fat, and butter is fat, so what gives? Wait, butter isn't just fat; it's fat, and milk solids, and about 10-20% WATER. Butter in itself is an emulsion. Comparing Mardi's sauce to another I found from Tyler Florence, I realized the answer (and a glaring difference from how I was taught): clarify the butter. If you remove the water, you should be all good.

Mission: Hollandaise Hack

These were purely my own theories based on observation So I struck out with a plan to test these theories, wholly expecting it to fail. Based on my new found ideas, here's what I used to make my Hollandaise:

That's right, no double boiler, just a tiny skillet, a plastic bowl, and my very small whisk.Well, I figured if someone can make a sous-vide cooker out of a beer cooler, I can make Hollandaise with this. 

Here's what I did:

(Here's my recipe from a previous post)

So, the first steps of any Hollandaise: clarify your butter, and whisk your yolks. While my butter was clarifying, I started whisking my eggs and lemon juice in my plastic bowl. Setting the yolks aside for a moment, I clarified my butter once it had melted and separated. Pretty conventional stuff.

The next step is to heat up the yolks. Here's where I had to diverge from the standard. I don't have a double boiler, and my theory is that the metal bowl is one of the big problems anyway. My solution? To heat it in a plastic bowl - now, my physicist husband tells me plastic is a poor conductor. This means it doesn't transmit heat very well - in or out. Perfect! By using a plastic bowl, it avoids the issue of accidentally over cooking the yolks to a scramble, and also solves the issue of the yolks cooling down too quickly, causing the sauce to break.

I  placed a half a paper towel (folded into a square) into a small skillet, put about an inch or so of water in, and brought it to a simmer. I know what you're thinking, why the paper towel?The plan is to immerse the bowl into the simmering water to gently heat up the yolks. My bowls can withstand simmering water, but would likely warp given direct contact with the bottom of the pan. The paper towel acts as insulation. And given my (somewhat limited) knowledge of thermal dynamics, I knew nothing bad would happen to the paper towel (long physics-y explanation, don't ask). You just have to trust me on this one.

So I placed my bowl o' yolks into the simmering water, whisking to distribute the gentle heat. Once the yolks are warm (you can tell by touching the whisk, when the whisk is warm, the eggs are warm), wrap a towel around the base to keep the bowl steady while you whisk in the butter. Whisk in a tablespoon or so of butter at at a time, occasionally returning the bowl of yolks to the water for a few seconds, and soon you'll have a delicious, rich Hollandaise sauce to grace your Eggs Benedict, some asparagus, or a spoon.

One final problem with Hollandaise? I mean, besides the fact that it's too delicious for its own good... It leaves a lot of leftover egg whites, but don't let that dissuade you! Here are some ideas for those whites:
  • Meringues
  • Macaroons
  • Macarons 
  • Angel Food Cake
  • Freeze individually in ice cube trays, then remove and store in a zip top bag for later use
  • Or do what I did: make an egg white scramble the next morning, with lots of butter to make up for the missing yolks!
 A little fresh tomato, some onion, and a touch of smoked salmon? Perfection!


  1. Splendid!! This is such a helpful post. :-) I'm so glad you're a clever sort of person to experiment and discover this way of doing it. :-)

  2. Thanks! Now I just have to try a friend's suggestion: seeing if my theories work without adding heat to anything. I think it would work in 105+ degree temps, but it doesn't get that hot here... :)

  3. I'm inspired, Eggs Benedict is my favorite thing in the world; I mean right behind beer, sleeping, avoiding work...

    Can't wait to try!


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