I love to see fundamental or “classic” dishes examined freshly.  The LA Times story by Amy Scattergood (what a great name!) on the beurre blanc is a good example, but also a telling one in terms of how we subsequently lose sight of them, which gives the piece a poignant note of irony at the end.
    Scattergood rightly praises this sauce and urges us to ignore its fuddy-duddy reputation.  The beurre blanc is probably the easiest most wonderful sauce you can put together a la minute.  A poached egg on toast is a poached egg on toast, but put a spoonful of beurre blanc on that poached egg, and it becomes exquisite.  Why is the beurre blanc so easy?  Because butter is in effect an emulsified sauce already.  You’re simply maintaining the emulsification as you melt it (a few drops of liquid ensures this) and seasoning it with acid and aromats.
    The shallot is critical.  Without minced shallot, it can only be a mediocre beurre blanc.  Shallots are perhaps the most influential onion in the kitchen.  I’d never thought about the shallot much until I worked with Eric Ripert on A Return to Cooking.  For the book, Eric was basically cooking everything himself and buying much of it from grocery stores.  One evening over the cutting board he said, “I’m using shallots everywhere.  I never realized how important the shallot was.”  And it’s true.  The shallot doesn’t call attention to itself, but its impact is great and its uses are countless.
    A tablespoon of minced shallot, 2 tablespoons vinegar, 4 tablespoons wine, season with salt and cook till most of the liquid is gone, then add 6 tablespoons or so of butter, incrementally, stirring continuously (or simply swirling it in the pan,just keep it moving–just don’t let it get too hot).  Notice the easy ratio: 1:2:4:6. You will have a rich, delicious sauce of nappe consistency that is so good you could eat it on toast if you wanted (or fish, or meat, or veg, or egg).
    Simple as it is, this sauce was a mystery to the American home cook until Julia put it in her book.  In her recent memoir*, written with her grandnephew, she describes her obsession in figuring out how to achieve this little miracle.  The masters were all vague on the subject, she writes, but at a little Right Bank bistro, Chez la Mere Michel, the proprietress, showed her how.  And Julia took it home and practiced it and perfected it, and thus was it introduced to the American home cook.
    Two decades later, it would be debased by bad cooks nouvelling their way into obscurity to the point that the very utterance "beurre blanc" elicited quiet derision.  And no wonder!  In the LA Times article, chef Marc Peel recalls once being served a … jalapeno-caviar beurre blanc.
    And here’s the telling part of the article.  It goes on to encourage the very kind of “innovative” riffs that gave the beurre blanc a bad name!  Why?  It’s infuriating!  There’s a reason why it was originally so revered, why Julia herself said in its classic form it is “stunningly delicious.”
    The article gives recipes for, among others, a coconut milk beurre blanc and a soy beurre blanc.  Now in the hands of a Marcus Samuelsson, whose recipe it is, I have no doubt it’s an excellent beurre-soy, but it’s not something to encourage among home cooks who may never have tried to make the original.
    The LA Times food section is one of my favorites in the country, but why do newspapers and magazines insist on this?
    In my first article for Gourmet, I wrote about veal stock.  The editor handling the piece, a seasoned editor of long standing, wanted one more recipe, something a little more unique than a classic sauce or braise.  "How about something a la grecque?" she asked.  It was my first story and if she’d told me to do a recipe for jalapenos and caviar a la grecque, I’d have said, No problem, sounds delicious.  And so I gave her a recipe for vegetables a la grecque with a veal stock vinaigrette.  It actually didn’t taste bad, but to this day, the sound of a veal stock vinaigrette still makes me shiver.  Needless to say, it didn’t make the big book (but, tellingly, my veal stock recipe did; that’s a classic after all).
    There’s only so much you can do to a classic before it sighs hopelessly and retreats, waiting for a new more sensible generation to “discover” it.

*btw, the Julia book is a delight, fascinating to watch how Mastering the Art came to be.

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12 Wonderful responses to “The classics are smarter than we are”

  • H.Alexander Talbot

    And thus classics are the springboard for inspirations, a touchstone for ideas and the benchmark from which dishes are judged. Without the classics we have no framework to build upon.

    Thanks for the spark.

    Alex

  • kristin

    While I am still learning to master bistro fare,( Thanks to the Bouchon Cookbook) bure blanc is still something that scares me. I really need to get past this fear. I think it is the absolute fear of failure and totally mucking the whole thing up to the point that it will be so awful not only will I never want to serve it to anyone but I will never want to attempt it again.

  • ruhlman

    kristin,

    I assure you that anything you have mastered, beyond marinating olives, from Bouchon is more difficult that a traditional beurre blanc. The only potential danger is allowing it to get too hot, in which case the butter fat will separate from the solids. Hi thee hence to the kitchen. Your mouth will hang open as you marvel at the ease of what you are doing.

  • bourdain

    For those frightened by beurre blanc, or traumatized by repeated failures; fear not! Do as the pros do! Cheat! Follow Ruhlman’s impeccable classic recipe (with perhaps the addition of a little white wine) but add a couple tsp heavy cream.(NOT too much–it’s a BUTTER sauce, not a cream sauce) Reduce vinegar/shallot/cream until almost disappeared, THEN swirl in whole softened butter. The cream will help hold the whole thing together. As most problems with beurre blanc occur after it’s made–while being held at inhospitable temperatures (causing inconvenient breakage), try holding it in a wide-mouthed, plastic thermos.
    Best tip? Just keep trying. After breaking beurre blanc five or six or twelve times, you’ll “feel it”. In no time at all, you’ll be “cowboying” that shit like a professional: Throwing the butter in in two big globs–over open flame–a few vigorous whisks and bingo. Beurre fucking blanc! Beurre blanc is a classic example of food which respects confidence and rough handling. Treat your beurre like a rented mule and it’ll behave. Be fearful and tenuous with it–and it’ll kick your ass then wander all over the county.

  • Sara

    I absolutely agree about the Julia memoir – it was amazing to read as she just ran straight into the culinary world of France. Her desire to acquire knowledge was truly breathtaking.

  • Adam

    I saw The Barefoot Contessa make an easy Bernaise sauce yesterday on her show that seems similar in approach to your recipe, Michael. She put vinegar in a hot pan, added shallots and tarragon and let it reduce to two tablespoons. She also melted butter. Then she put three egg yolks in a blender, and while it was whirring she added the shallot mixture and then the butter. “Your friends will never know it was this easy,” she said and then she frolicked across her Hamptons estate and went for a spin in her BMW. Hope you did the same when you finished your beurre blanc!

  • ruhlman

    adam,

    the hot butter into blending yolks is a workable method, i believe first written about by craig claiborne in the 60s or 70s. it will be or ought to be quite a bit thicker than a beurre blanc. neither method, alas, results in a BMW.

  • ruhlman

    tony brings up an interesting point. cream in a beurre blanc? for home cooks, is this a good strategy? isn’t this more soy and coconut milk nonsense?

    think about it. think. it’s cream. cream is one step from butter. this is a butter sauce. it adds water as well which you need to maintain the emulsion. so, yes, it makes perfect sense.

    and this is how you take a classic and improvise meaningfully on it. a rare moment of coherence from bourdain. keep taking those meds!

  • BobdG

    Having begun my professional cooking career during the height (or was it the nadir?) of the American Nouvelle Cuisine Period I saw more than my fair share of beurre blanc attrocities (How about tournedos of beef with raspberry beurre blanc; each misbegotten filet surmounted by a crown of fresh raspberries?) although arguably nothing as horrendos as your jalepeno-caviar nightmare on a plate. But as bad as these variations were, the worst thing to happen to beurre blanc was its overuse.

    It seems to me that between 1980 and 1990 I couldn’t go into a high end American restaurant without finding beurre blanc on everything from snow peas to cod to strip steak. Forunately it’s overuse is history, the gauntlet of “what can we now beat to death” has been thrown down to cooks who seem to know no other vinegar than balsamic and no mushroom other than the Portobello.

    Bourdain’s advice to the poster who was nervous about making the sauce was right on. It’s actually a very easy sauce to make if you just sort of whack it together. And if you add cream you can boil it like pitch and it won’t break. I think too that large quantities are easier to make than small amounts and that a lot people get freaked by trying to learn the sauce by making just enough to put on a single dish.

  • ann

    God, I adore beure blanc! It’s one of those classic sauces I’m kind of happy has fallen off the radar, so that when I see it on a menu it’s like a wonderful surprise, or when I make it for friends I’m called a genius!
    My other favorite is a perfectly executed brown butter sauce.
    The first time I made it I was scared sh*tless that I was going to burn it, then I realised that was the whole durn point, and, et voila! perfect brown butter sage sauce over my not so perfect gnocchi.
    At least one thing went well…

  • BobdG

    Ann

    Try cervelle de veau aux beurre noisette (sauteed calve’s brains with brown butter) -it’ll spin your compass rose.

  • kristin

    Thank you Michael and Tony. I certainly will give it a try. I think I have an old pan that I will use so that if something goes horribly wrong I am not ruining the good calphalon or Le Creuset.
    The only things I have done from Buchon are salads, but Tarte Tatin is on the menu this weekend and I will practice my burre blanc and let you know how it went.