Everyday Food Blog

The Science of Hollandaise

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The kitchen is like our science lab here: We test recipes over and over again to make sure everything works perfectly. But did you know that there's also plenty of real science going on too? It happens every time you cook. When your meat browns, your cake rises (or doesn't), or your seafood turns opaque, there is a tiny, invisible reaction going on in your food.

So how does hollandaise go from a mixture of yolks and clarified butter to a smooth, creamy sauce? Let's get semi-scientific and find out.

Anyone who's tried to make salad dressing knows that oil and water don't mix. They've just never liked each other. To get them to stay together permanently, you need an emulsifier. Emulsifiers work because their molecules have one water-loving side and one fat-friendly side, so they act like a mediator between the two substances. You've probably heard of one already: soap. It attracts grease and dirt but still washes off easily in water.

One of our favorite emulsifiers to use in the kitchen is an egg yolk. When we make hollandaise sauce, the yolks are mixed with lemon juice (which disperses tiny droplets of the emulsifier) before whisking in a steady stream of melted butter. The butter is slowly broken into small droplets which are held in place by the egg yolk. Everything gets thick and creamy because the heat of the butter is cooking the eggs. Too much heat will cause a scrambled mess and not enough will stop the emulsion from forming.

Even though there's a lot of science going on in a little bowl of sauce, it doesn't mean that hollandaise is hard to make (tune in tomorrow for Sarah's easy method). With a little practice, it might become a staple at brunch in your house. Spoon some on poached eggs or get adventurous with a hollandaise derivative like Bearnaise sauce.

If you want to get more into the science of cooking, check out Harold McGee's book, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen.


Comments (4)

  • avatar

    I just watched Sara prepare Hollandaise sauce. The eggs are not cooked, so there is a danger of Salmonella. I don't used any uncooked eggs in my recipes. Please comment.
    Love you Sara,


  • avatar

    I agree with Naomi with uncooked eggs danger. Is traditional way of making sauce with double boiler safer?

  • avatar Author Comment:

    The eggs do get cooked slightly by the warm butter. The risk of Salmonella here is VERY low.

  • avatar

    The risk of salmonella is ridiculously low. Check the stats on that. More likely you'll win the lottery. Sarah Carey's videos are a joy. I love Everyday Food and have every hard copy issue from the beginning. EF is just that, food you can do quickly with few ingredients. I save my energy for the complex dishes I make and fir my newest fun, molecular gastronomy. Just finished reversed spherification Tzatiki. What fun and delicious.
    I look forward to my Sarah videos each morning.
    Now back to the kitchen to make my perfect poached (drained of excess whites before going in the acidulated water)

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