One of the dishes we made for the summer party this year was a simple plate of grill seared scallops and a tomato vermouth beurre blanc.
This dish resulted in one injury and an almost failure, so it's worth pointing at least the later out. The burn was my own fault, after re-stoking the grill with charcoal I picked up the grate to place it on the grill. Bare handed. That was fine for the side that hadn't been on the coals. Less so for the other hand. It's recovered now, but looks pretty gnarly for a while there.
I've made beurre blanc sauces so many times now that I've gotten pretty cavalier about it. This is both good and bad. It's good because I know I can add one to a menu with fairly little thought. It's bad because when you take a recipe and start playing fast and loose with it, you need to know why it works in the first place, and what to do if something goes wrong.
Beurre blancs are a class of emulsified sauces that make use of the natural emulsion that's in butter itself. Butter can be thought of as fat and water, but something is keeping them together rather than broken apart like bad oil and vinegar. As long as you heat butter gently and not too high, the emulsion that's there remains and the sauce is smooth. Heat too fast, or too high, and the butterfat comes out of the suspension and you have a greasy pool on top of your sauce. The other thing is that unlike sauces that make use of melted butter and another emulsifier (such as egg) you can't have too much butter in a beurre blanc. Why? Because the butter itself is the sauce and emulsifier! All of the other things are just flavorings. The flavorings will obviously become muted as you add more butter, but the sauce won't break or fail because of it.
For the party, I had the half-pound of butter that goes into this sauce prepped and ready. This is how we normally do things at the party, and so it was sitting there until it was time to make the sauce. Several things set up for the potential disaster, however: a) the butter was out for several hours and it's summertime. That means it was already very close to being a sauce. b) I was at least partially distracted by the aforementioned burn. c) the party had been going for a while. Let's just say that there was less wine outside of me than there was earlier in the day.
The scallops were off being grilled and I had the gastrique being reduced and ready to go. Once I hit the right reduction point, I dropped in the tomato paste, stirred to heat, and was ready for the butter. OK. Pan's too hot because you normally reduce fire to low or off before adding butter and wait a bit (but I hadn't). Butter's way too soft. I'm in a hurry (those scallops are coming off any second) and drop the entire half pound in at once and start stirring. Whoa! It's clearly melting way too fast. Kill the heat. Stir like mad and watch in horror as the sauce hovers for five minutes just shy of breaking. Only luck, the stirring, and moving the pan completely off the stove so no more heat was being dumped in from the grate kept the sauce together.
So, I got away with it. But for the next time you do this, here's some hints:
- don't add all the butter at once. If you put in a tiny bit and see that things are too hot, you can stir and wait until things cool down.
- don't have the butter already melting. It doesn't have to be rock hard either, but kitchen are hot in the summer, ya know?
- have some ice chips handy (I usually do but, well, I think there was some wine or something). Tossing in one or two can very quickly cool a sauce if needed.
If I'd completely broken the sauce I could have started over. I had more vermouth, garlic, and tomato paste (and butter, of course). If I needed to rescue the gastrique (say I had no more vermouth), you can spoon off the grease, check temp, and start back in with fresh butter. It isn't quite the same, but it does work.