28 May 2010

White Butter, or « Beurre blanc »

We usually think of butter as being yellow. “White butter” —
« beurre blanc » in French — isn't just butter though. It's a sauce. Butter is the main ingredient, but the recipe includes shallots, wine, and vinegar as well. It's a sauce you serve with poached fish.

Beurre blanc was invented in Nantes, they say, a city located near the mouth of the Loire River, in an area that some consider to be southern Brittany. The white butter sauce is often served with fresh-water fish, especially the European pike called a brochet. But the sauce is good with any poached white fish — ocean or river fish.

Instead of shallots, you could make the beurre blanc with onions, but the taste would be slightly different. You could also use lemon juice instead of vinegar, but the classic version is made with vinegar. The Larousse Gastronomique gives at least five recipes for beurre blanc, some of which contain no wine at all, but only high-quality white wine vinegar.

In Je Sais Cuisiner, the classic home cookery book by Ginette Mathiot, the recipe for beurre blanc calls for white wine — a dry muscadet from the Nantes area — but no vinegar at all.

Most recipes, however, call for dry white wine with vinegar added to it. That's the version I made yesterday. Since there is just a small amount of vinegar to "pep up" the wine, you can use either white wine vinegar or distilled vinegar (vinaigre d'alcool). In fact, I've only recently been able to find white wine vinegar in our local supermarkets, and what I've found is imported from Portugal.

Cod, potatoes, and asparagus with a beurre blanc sauce.
I didn't strain out the cooked shallot,
which had a nice pink color.

Here's the recipe. It's easy to make, as long as you don't turn the heat up too high under the butter, which should emulsify into a foamy, white sauce as you whisk it into the reduction of shallots, wine, and vinegar.
Beurre blanc

3 Tbsp. finely chopped shallot
¼ cup dry white wine
2 Tbsp. water
1 Tbsp. vinegar (white wine or distilled)
salt and pepper
1 stick (120 grams) butter

Put the chopped shallot in a saucepan and pour in the white wine, water, and vinegar. Set the pan on medium heat and let it simmer until the liquid is reduced by half. Don't let all the liquid evaporate, but keep it simmering until the shallot is completely cooked. Add a little water as necessary. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Cut the cold butter into half-inch cubes. Small pieces of butter will melt more evenly into the liquid.

When you have a good reduction with about three tablespoons of liquid left in the sauce pan, turn the heat down and gradually add the butter, whisking it in so that it emulsifies (blends smoothly) with the liquid and shallots to make a foamy white sauce. Let it simmer for a minute or two, but don't let it boil hard or the butter sauce will separate.

If you prefer, you can pour the beurre blanc through a strainer to remove the chopped shallot before you
serve it.
Beurre blanc sauce is really good on fish, but it's also good on steamed potatoes or green vegetables. For more flavor, poach the fish in what is called a court-bouillon — water with a little vinegar or wine, a bay leaf, some onion or garlic, and herbs, simmered until nicely flavored before the fish is added.

We had the beurre blanc sauce with codfish fillets rolled up, fastened with a wooden skewer, and poached in a court-bouillon to which we added some lemongrass. And we ate it with steamed potatoes and asparagus spears, plus some good bread to mop up the sauce with. And a glass of chilled Touraine Sauvignon Blanc wine.


  1. In my youth we used to have, from time to time, what is called "raie au beurre noir" or ray with black butter sauce. That brownish sauce had a definite vinegary taste, just like the white butter sauce. As I remember it was delicious, even though fish wasn't my favorite at the time!

    That meal of yours must have been really delicious!

  2. Bonjour from Western Australia. What a joy to find your blog, filled with fascinating insights and lovely recipes. I was given the book, en anglaise, "I Know How to Cook", for Christmas and it has pride of place among my many other French cookbooks.

  3. Hi Louise, to find the beurre blanc recipe in Ginette Mathiot's book, you have to look for Brochet au beurre blanc (à la nantaise). I guess that would be Pike in the translation. In my French copy, it's recipe no. 1875.

    CHM, I almost included a paragraph about beurre noir in my post, but decided to leave the subject for later. In the Collins-Robert, the translation for beurre noir is "brown (butter) sauce". It's really beurre noisette, these days. I just found this site that says raie au beurre noir - divin au goût et mortel pour la santé, interdit en restauration et à consommer avec modération. Maybe we can do beurre noir AND beurre blanc dishes when you visit this summer.

  4. MMM...beurre blanc is one of my favorite sauces. I always ordered it at least once during my work trips to the Loire Valley (though not more than once considering how bad it is for the waistline!!). I also like when they add a touch of lemon juice to the sauce - it's a really nice pairing.

  5. Very interesting site. I had no idea how beurre noir was made. Neither did I know it could cause cancer and was banned in restaurants by law. As for everything in life, moderation is the name of the game. May be, now, they should switch to "Raie au beurre blanc!"

    Can't wait to taste your version of both!

  6. As I was reading, I was thinking how wonderful to have good bread to mop up the sauce until you wrote about it. I have noticed that in the US, people don't do that. I still do and my ex-husband used to be angry at me for doing it. (He always wanted me to leave food in my plate).
    I guess CHM is back in France? Lucky!

  7. We used to order raie au beurre noir when we saw it on menus. Come to think of it, we haven't seen it lately.

    I'm not sure I want to read about its being mortel pour la sante.

  8. Wow, that sounds delicious. I had heard of this sauce (from my restaurant work days), but I have never made it myself. I am going to this summer!

    Nadege, I used to think it looked funny when people sopped up their sauce with bread, but, after living in France, I got used to it, and I always do it, too! It would be unconscionable to waste good sauce! :))

    chm, welcome back to France, if that's where you now are :))

    p.s. I just finished the last day of school... vacation!

  9. Hi Carolyn, it does seem a little over the top to say that eating beurre noir a few times will give you cancer, doesn't it? I've eaten aile de raie au beurre many times in my life. I think beurre noisette, which is not cooked so long or hot, is still OK to eat, and I'm sure it would be good with skate wing or monkfish or whatever. I do wonder if skates and rays are endangered, the way they say sharks are.

    Judy, très bonnes vacances. Les grandes vacances. How nice.

    Hello Nadège, I think most Americans don't eat the kind of bread you can use to finish the sauce on your plate. And in France, portions are smaller so you are expected to eat everything that's served. I imagine you can get pretty good French bread in L.A. We could in S.F. when we lived there.

  10. I haven't made beurre blanc in quite a while. I just checked my recipe and it calls for dry white wine and white wine vinegar, as well as the butter and shallots.

  11. My recipe is exactly like yours and we love it with grilled salmon. It just gilds the lily!!

  12. Mmmm..that looks delicious. Ilove beurre blanc sauce and make it myself from time to time. Also like beurre noisette, but the cancer thing is new to me. Really? Is it the burnt thing, like they also say that charring meat on a BBQ is carcinogenic?


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