Just so you'll know how amateur I can be in the kitchen, I once tried to make a nuttier-flavored sauce by browning my roux of flour and margarine for an excessively long time. I stirred and stirred and tried to get that margarine to change color. Finally, I gave up and went ahead and made my gravy. Then, a few weeks later, I left some butter on the stove to melt, ignoring it like I usually do when melting margarine. Pretty soon, the smell of burning and smoke brought my attention front and center. I had to discard my very browned, practically black butter quickly and then open all the windows to air out my house. It then dawned on me why my gravy hadn't changed to the brown I'd been hoping for . . . the simple difference between margarine and butter.
Lucky you! You get to learn from my mistakes and can go right on to creating splendid sauces. A bit of knowledge regarding the ingredients and tricks to using them will help your sauces turn out just the way you wish.
Sumptuous or Slender?
So many of the tried-and-true recipes passed down from generations ago use butter for its cooking and flavoring properties. Since those sauces are so delicious, why change a good thing? The only reason you may see is to lighten up on the calories and fat. If this is your desire, you can substitute extra light olive oil in any sauce recipe calling for butter or lard. Expect some flavor differences, as the olive oil will add no taste to the sauce. In sauces where the fat flavor is important, it's probably best to use real butter. Most recipes request unsalted butter, which is sold under the name of 'sweet butter' in American grocery stores.
Thick or Thin?
Sauces can be thickened using a variety of ingredients or methods listed below. I've listed the thickeners available to home cooks in order of common usage.
1. Roux: This is an equal combination of flour and fat (butter, oil, margarine, shortening, drippings, lard, etc.) that is cooked until smooth and bubbly over low heat. It can be browned to bring out a nuttier flavor and add color to your sauce or gravy. This is especially the case when using butter; however, the flour will turn slightly golden regardless of which fat you use. After the roux is made, the liquid is whisked into it, and the gravy or sauce is heated until it thickens.
To ensure smoothness in the sauce, a chef taught me to remove the roux from the heat and to whisk in the liquid slowly, stirring out the lumps. When all of the liquid is added and the sauce is smooth, return it to the heat source and bring it to boil until thickened.
Another trick for less cooking time is to heat the liquid before adding it to the roux. Then, you won't have to stir the sauce for such a long time waiting for the liquid to warm up and come to a boil.
Use this guide for how much roux you'll need for the desired consistency of your sauce.
Thick: 3 tablespoons roux to 1 cup liquid
Medium: 2 tablespoons roux to 1 cup liquid
Thin: 1 tablespoon roux to 1 cup liquid.
It's easy to remember by counting back "3-2-1" per cup of liquid. This rule of thumb is based on wheat flour. All other flours have twice the thickening power of wheat, in which case you'd need half the amount of the roux listed to thicken one cup of liquid (1-1/2 tablespoons, 1 tablespoon, and 1-1/2 teaspoons).
2. Cornstarch and Arrowroot: I love to use cornstarch for dessert sauces. I love the translucent, shiny gloss it adds to fruity glazes. It is simple to use and thickens quickly. Simply stir the cornstarch into an equal amount of liquid until smooth. Then pour it into your simmering liquid. Whisk and cook for only a minute or two until the sauce is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Don't cook too long or the sauce will thin out again. Cornstarch-thickened sauces are best when served immediately.
Use arrowroot in the same way you'd use cornstarch and as a last-minute thickener. Don't cook it for over one minute. It pretty much thickens upon contact.
Use 1/2 tablespoon cornstarch or arrowroot per 1 cup liquid.
3. Egg Yolks: If you enjoy making homemade puddings or lemon pie, you've certainly put the thickening power of egg yolks to good use. Slightly tricky, I find it so discouraging to put the effort into a lovely pudding, only to add the egg yolks and have them curdle and lump up my dessert. I'm much more cautious when using yolks than I used to be.
To prevent curdling depression in your kitchen, never boil a sauce containing egg yolks unless your sauce includes the stabilizing power of flour. Heat the sauce gently and thoroughly, but don't let it boil. Never add yolks directly to your hot liquid. Instead, whisk some of the hot liquid (just a bit at a time) into the yolks to bring them slowly up to temperature. If you add them all at once to your sauce, they'll be temperature shocked into curdle syndrome. And once your sauce curdles, there is unfortunately little you can do to make it smooth again, except perhaps to run it through a very fine sieve. When you're ready to add the warmed yolks into your hot liquid, drizzle them slowly into the sauce and use your whisk and beat that drizzle in quickly. They'll have less chance of curdling if that whisk is dancing in the pan to incorporate them into the sauce.
Use 2-3 egg yolks to thicken 1 cup of liquid.
4. Reduction: No added ingredients needed! Simply evaporate the liquid out of the sauce by continuous cooking until it reaches your desired consistency. You can do this slowly by simmering the liquid for hours, or you can do it through quick evaporation by heating it over medium to high heat. If using the quick method, be sure to watch it carefully to avoid boiling all of the liquid away. Reduction intensifies the flavors. You may wish to avoid adding seasonings (like salt) until your sauce reaches the desired consistency, as they will concentrate down as the water evaporates.
5. Kneaded Butter (Beurre Manie): This spur-of-the-moment thickener works quickly when you decide you'd like that soup or sauce to be a bit heartier. To prepare, knead together equal amounts of butter and flour to make a thick paste using a butter knife, fork, or your clean fingers. Store it in the freezer if you like to always keep some on hand. When needed, pinch off a bit and roll it into a pea-sized ball. Whisk one or two balls into your sauce, bring the sauce to a simmer, and cook for 2-3 minutes. Continue adding bits of kneaded butter until your sauce reaches the desired consistency. If your sauce or stew tastes too floury, simmer it for about 30 minutes and the flour taste will disappear. A sauce or soup thickened with kneaded butter should not be reboiled. The high heat will cause it to thin out.
6. Bread Crumbs: Great for adding heartiness to salsa, soups and some sauces, simply add a handful of crumbs to the sauce, stir in, and let the mixture set or cook for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. The crumbs will go to work to absorb excess liquid. When the sauce reaches your desired thickness, serve it right away. If you desire a smoother sauce, strain it before serving. Crumbs can either be toasted or fresh.
7. Grated Potato: You'll need 10 minutes to spare for a potato to thicken and add heart to your sauce, soup, or stew. First run grated potato through your blender or food processor. Then add it to your liquid and let it cook for those 10 allotted minutes (you may need to cook it longer).
8. Potato Starch: Working again like cornstarch and arrowroot, it thickens sauces quickly but has little staying power if overheated or left to sit. Potato starch's light flavor is preferred in delicate sauces. Dissolve the starch in an equal amount of water before whisking into simmering liquids. Cook until thick.
Use 1/2 tablespoon potato starch per 1 cup liquid.
9. Butter and Cream: These flavorful ingredients work to thicken sauces too. However, they are being replaced by other methods due to their waist-bulging properties. Butter added to sauce gives it a shiny, luscious appearance, adds flavor, thickens it, and makes the sauce smoother in texture. Use chilled (practically frozen) butter. Remove the sauce from the heat, and drop in about 1 teaspoon of butter at a time. Don't stir the butter in harshly. Instead, just swirl the pan from and let the butter melt into the sauce. Keep swirling the pan until the butter disappears.
Cream lends velvety smoothness to sauces. Use only heavy cream. To know how much cream to use to thicken a sauce, measure how much sauce you have. Use 10-20 percent of that quantity of cream to thicken the sauce. Boil the cream separately for a few minutes before adding it to the sauce.
* DVO welcomes your kitchen hints and cooking or nutrition questions! Email us and we'll post your hints and Q/A's in upcoming newsletters! *