Bearnaise and hollandaise sauces are easily identifiably by their sunny yellow color. These two thick, rich sauces are quite similar, as they belong to the same family of sauces in classical French cuisine. The primary difference is in their seasoning, which affects how they are traditionally used in dishes. However, the two sauces are similar enough in taste and texture that they can be used interchangeably.
There are five main sauces in French cuisine, known as the grandes sauces. These sauces are the foundational sauces, also known as the mother sauces, from which fancier versions are created, through seasoning and the addition of other ingredients.
Hollandaise is one of the five mother sauces of French cuisine, and bearnaise sauce is a derivative of hollandaise sauce. Both sauces belong in the blondes sauces category. The other sauce types include béchamel, velouté, espagnole and sauce tomat.
The primary difference between hollandaise and béarnaise is that béarnaise sauce contains added vinegar, tarragon and onion to give it extra flavor. However, in some cases, white wine, peppercorns and chervil are also used to season the sauce.
Hollandaise sauce is made by blending egg yolks and butter together. The egg yolks and the butter emulsify -- the fat is suspended in a pastelike form -- which is what gives both sauces their thick texture and rich taste.
To make a hollandaise sauce:
- Beat together 1 tablespoon of heavy cream for every 4 egg yolks.
- Then drizzle in 4 tablespoons of warm melted butter.
- Add the butter gradually, to encourage the sauce to thicken, much like in making a mayonnaise.
- Season the sauce with ground pepper and salt to taste and keep warm until ready to use.
For a bearnaise sauce, additional seasoning is needed.
- Before beating in the butter, bring 1/4 cup of white wine vinegar, 3 tablespoons of minced fresh tarragon, 1/2 teaspoon whole black peppercorns and 2 tablespoons of finely minced shallot to a boil.
- Cook on medium-high heat until the vinegar is reduced to 1 1/2 tablespoons, then strain out the other ingredients.
- Beat the vinegar reduction in with the egg yolks and cream, then add the butter, beating constantly as you would with a hollandaise sauce.
- Keep the sauce warm until ready to serve.
Because of its stronger taste, béarnaise sauce is traditionally served alongside grilled meats and fish, where the added shallots give the sauce greater depth of flavor. The vinegar in a béarnaise sauce also cuts the natural richness of meats.
Hollandaise sauce, with its more neutral taste, is more commonly served with asparagus; poached fish or meats; or eggs. The sauce adds richness to foods, without masking their naturally subtle taste.