The Norwegian Doctor Butter Sauce

The Norwegian Doctor Butter Sauce

Norwegian Guro Helgesdotter Rognså has cracked many eggs and made butter sauce for many years while studying how chemical processes affect the food we make. In 2015, she earned her doctorate in emulsion sauces at the University of Copenhagen. She can rightly so title herself the Norwegian Doctor Butter Sauce.

“Molecular gastronomy can be described as the science that explains why a dish turns out and tastes the way it does,” says Rognså from her place among the chefs at The Culinary Institute of Norway (CI) in Stavanger.

In connection with the work on her doctorate, she also completed the taste study Hautes Études du Goût, earning her the Diplôme Universitaire du Goût, de la Gastronomie et des Arts de la Table from the Université de Reims Champagne-Ardenne, in addition to training as a sommelier.

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The Norwegian Doctor Butter Sauce
Guro Helgesdotter Rognså shares her knowledge among the chefs at The Culinary Institute of Norway (CI) in Stavanger.

What goes on in emulsion sauces?

“I wanted to find out what goes on in emulsion sauces,” says Rognså and admits that large quantities of butter have been used in connection with her studies.

An emulsion is a mixture of two liquids that initially repel each other, such as fat and water, something many people have learned in the kitchen. But this has not been studied from the angle of a professional chef until Rognså started researching butter sauces.

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The doctoral project was a collaboration between the Department of Gastronomy, University of Copenhagen, Nofima and part-financed via NCE Culinology and the Norwegian Research Council.

Molecular gastronomy

The Norwegian Doctor Butter Sauce
Rognså has named her science molecular gastronomy. Photo: Wikipedia

Food is history, nutrition, culture, tradition, craftsmanship and science. And it’s chemistry. Rognså has named it molecular gastronomy. Or to make it a little more specific: She has put sauces and emulsions under the microscope.

Molecular gastronomy is also science’s attempt to explain what the chefs achieve in the kitchen. It is chemistry, physics and biology that make ice cream become ice cream. These are the molecules that food is made of.

Guro Helgesdotter Rognså is the first student to earn a doctorate at The Culinary Institute of Norway in Stavanger.

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The fact that two liquids refuse to mix and rather separate is something most people who have tried their cooking know-how in the kitchen have experienced. But this and other butter sauce issues have not been properly investigated previously from a culinary professional angle. And even less was researched, before the girl from Valdres began her studies.

The scientific study of deliciousness

The Norwegian Doctor Butter Sauce
An emulsion is a mixture of two liquids that initially repel each other. Photo: Reiss/Culinary Pro

Maybe she follows in the footsteps of Harold McGee, the American author who writes about food science, and defined it as “the scientific study of deliciousness”.

“I have always been interested in food but trained as a civil engineer in chemistry and biotechnology and set my sights on a career in medical research. But then this idea was born, and someone thought it suited me perfectly,” Rognså explains about the path to the gastronomic doctorate.

However, being a new area of study, she had to forge her own path along the way. “The path to a gastronomic doctorate was perhaps not always ‘smooth as butter’”, she says.

She emphasizes that part of the challenge has been that both researchers and chefs have had a lot of knowledge, but relatively little has traditionally been exchanged between the professions.

“I wanted to combine the thoroughness of the research and knowledge of chemistry with the chefs’ experience and knowledge of raw materials,” says Rognså about the reason why she ended up at the Gastronomic Institute in Stavanger.

How cooking method affects the final methods

The Norwegian Doctor Butter Sauce
Many factors come into play and a lot can go wrong when making a butter sauce.

“All the others who work here are chefs, and it was important for them to be able to relate to the project,” she says and adds,  “So it was natural to ask what they wondered about most, and pretty quickly the answer was emulsions. They wanted to know what chemical processes occur when making a butter sauce, and how factors like cooking method affect the final product.”

“Emulsions differ because they are made of two liquids that cannot mix with each other; water and oil,” she explains. “When you make an emulsion, you whip tiny droplets of fat into the water.”

“Most emulsions are unstable and require something to keep them from separating. Egg yolks are one such ingredient,” says Rognså.

“When people make hollandaise or mayonnaise and find that it separates, many believe that it is because they have put in too few egg yolks. However, that is rarely the problem, because one egg yolk is enough to make over 20 liters of stable mayonnaise. The problem is rather that they have added too little water to the emulsion,” she says.

Many factors come into play and a lot can go wrong when making a butter sauce. Another common mistake is too high a temperature. If the sauce gets too hot, approaching 80 degrees or more, the yolk proteins coagulate and the consistency becomes more like scrambled eggs.

“Cooks with experience tend to have the temperature control in their fingers in a completely different way than the average amateur. For them, it is perfectly fine to make hollandaise sauce directly in a pot on the plate. For others, it may be a good idea to make the sauce in a bowl over a kettle of hot water instead,” suggests Rognså.

The Norwegian Doctor Butter Sauce
Rognså has put sauces and emulsions under the microscope.

There is no perfect sauce

Rognså says that there is no perfect sauce. Which ingredients are used and how the sauce is made vary from person to person. But she offers a few tips to make good butter sauces.

“Chefs today often start with a sabayonne sauce when they make hollandaise,” says Rognså. “I would recommend that you start by whisking egg yolks and the water-based ingredients (wine reduction or water, and lemon juice) in a bowl over steam, until it thickens. Then add warmed butter in a thin stream and whisk well.”

Hollandaise has a reputation for being difficult to make. The mixing of fat and water into a new consistency has a certain risk of failure, but it is well worth the effort,” says the doctor.

Hollandaise – the mother of all butter sauces – is, in short, a warm egg yolk-based emulsion. But there are many ways to make it. The methods have developed over 500 years.

A significant part of Rognså’s work with the doctorate has consisted of testing out different recipes and butter sauces together with the CI chefs. She admits that it has probably resulted in her making butter sauce more often now than before.

She admits that she was afraid of being perceived as the nerd who was supposed to teach skilled chefs how to do their job, but says that it turned out well.

The Norwegian Doctor Butter Sauce, written by Tor Kjolberg
Feature image (on the top): © Tom Haga/Dagligvarehandelen

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Journalist, PR and marketing consultant Tor Kjolberg has several degrees in marketing management. He started out as a marketing manager in Scandinavian companies and his last engagement before going solo was as director in one of Norway’s largest corporations. Tor realized early on that writing engaging stories was more efficient and far cheaper than paying for ads. He wrote hundreds of articles on products and services offered by the companies he worked for. Thus, he was attuned to the fact that storytelling was his passion.


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