Learn to steer through the world of sauces, and you’ve added many arrows to your culinary quiver: a selection of sauces can transform any number of ingredients into any number of glorious dishes. The best guarantor of happy diners are sauces that are egg-based. Thick, creamy, and with that umami kick that causes mouths to drool at the very thought, they go with just about anything, and are a safe bet for any palate.
Multifaceted, sauces are surprisingly easy to make, but for some reason, few home cooks do. Of these, the most famous are the “-aises:” mayonnaise, béarnaise, hollandaise. Each begins with an egg and oil (or butter)-based emulsion. A bit of chemistry (as we explained here), a good deal of whipping, and you can make show-stopping sauces at home.
What is Mayonnaise?
Mayonnaise as a term first appears in the famous 1806 cookbook by Alexandre Viard, though he doesn’t give a recipe for mayonnaise. There is no documentary evidence that the sauce existed prior to the 19th century. That’s not to say that it didn’t, but its origin stories are apocryphal. One version of its genesis, from Larousse Gastronomique, says that the term comes from the old French, moyeu, meaning egg yolk. That sounds plausible, as does the story that it comes from the Catalan word, maonesa, named after the town of Mahon in Menorca, Spain. The first recorded recipe comes in 1815, when Louis Eustache Ude wrote a recipe that was for an aspic, served nearly frozen, so it bore little relation to what we think of as the world’s favorite condiment today. Viard followed up with an 1820 recipe which featured “veal brain glaze”—probably delicious, but not the most encouraging ingredient for vegetarians and wary eaters. But the process for making that sauce was on the mark: “Take a raw egg yolk in a small terrine, with a little salt and lemon juice. Take a wooden spoon, turn it while letting a trickle of oil fall, stirring constantly. As your sauce thickens, add a little vinegar.”
This is the miracle of mayo: raw egg yolk plus lemon juice plus a trickle of oil and a lot of stirring equals unctuous, creamy sauce. At first you wouldn’t think that egg plus oil could create a thick sauce, but lecithin and protein from the egg yolks act as emulsifiers and the alchemy is complete. It is somewhat messy to make homemade mayonnaise, but no more so than dozens of other dishes. So why do so few of us make it? Hellman’s may be partly to blame—it’s delicious, inexpensive, and can be found anywhere in the world. We tend not to make homemade ketchup either, because it’s so easy and cheap to get decent factory-made versions. But there’s nothing like the homemade variety, whether made with a whisk, fork, mortar and pestle, or electric mixer.
Mayonnaise is a base for scores of other sauces, usually created by simply adding one component to the finished mayo. Add mustard to mayo and you’ve got remoulade. Add ketchup and you’ve got Marie Rose sauce, or Russian dressing—add sweet pickle relish to that for Thousand Island dressing. Add buttermilk and chives, and you’ve got Ranch dressing. Add pickled cucumbers and onions for tartar sauce. Add garlic for aioli. Add saffron and paprika to aioli, and you’ve got rouille.
How to make Bearnaise and Hollandaise
If you’re feeling a bit fancy, there are two mayonnaise alternatives to add to your saucy arsenal: béarnaise and hollandaise. While mayo is egg yolks plus oil (usually olive oil, sometimes sunflower), béarnaise and hollandaise feature egg yolks plus clarified butter. Add a bit of white wine and lemon juice for hollandaise, a sauce most often associated with eggs benedict but a treat on asparagus, broccoli, salmon, or just about anything you can think of. Its origins are said to be based on a sauce made for the King of the Netherlands’ visit to France, hence the name. With hollandaise on hand, add shallots pepper, tarragon and chervil to make béarnaise, with its origins in the Bearn province of France, a delight atop steak frites. Bearnaise sauce was invented by chef Jean-Louis-François Collinet, of the famous restaurant outside of Paris, Le Pavillon Henri IV, which opened in 1836. Collinet was born in the Bearn region, and most food historians say that béarnaise is his brainchild.
But the beauty of béarnaise, like mayonnaise, is that it is a base for other sauces to spice up your cooking options. Add pureed tomatoes (but leave out the tarragon and chervil) for Choron sauce. Add meat drippings for Foyot sauce. Swap out tarragon for mint, to dress roast lamb, and you’ve got Paloise sauce. And if you’re a fan of Comedy Central, add a white wine reduction to Foyot Sauce for Colbert sauce.
Hollandaise is one of the legendary chef Auguste Escoffier’s five “mother sauce recipes” in his great cookbook, which is the bible of classic French cookery. The other “mother sauces,” so called because they are the base of many other sauce variations, can be the subject of a future article. But with these three sauces, the –aises, all based on egg yolk plus oil or butter, a world of recipes opens to you.