Whether you cook professionally or just like to make more elaborate meals for your family, you’ve probably at some point made a soup or sauce that just didn’t have that thick, lush texture you were hoping for. It’s a simple fix during the cooking process, but once it’s done, disaster can ensue if you don’t do it correctly.
This is an easy way to thicken up most sauces. Simply combine equal parts corn starch and cold water in a small bowl and stir until you have a lump free, white liquid. Add this to your sauce a little at a time and simmer for a few minutes.
Tomato paste is a good choice for tomato based sauces, but can also be used for a brown sauce or gravy if you don’t mind the tomato flavor.
A roux is a traditional method of thickening a sauce, and is usually the first step in sauce making. To make one, you start with equal parts fat, often butter, and flour. Melt the butter in a saucepan and add the flour. Stir until the flour is incorporated into the fat. At this point you can cook the roux for several minutes to develop the flavor or just add the liquid. You can also make a roux and add it to a cooked sauce to thicken it up.
This is basically an uncooked roux. To make it, take soft butter and mix with equal parts flour. Make sure to work the flour into the butter until you have a dough like texture. This can then be used in small pieces to thicken your cooked sauce.
Egg yolks are usually used to thicken custards or puddings, but this method can also be used if you’re making a rich cream sauce. It may take some practice to avoid curdling your eggs, so you may not want to try this for the first time on an important dish.
If you add an egg to a hot sauce, you will have scrambled eggs, so in order to add eggs to a sauce without curdling, you need to “temper” the egg by adding a little bit of the hot liquid at a time.
To do this, crack the egg yolk into a bowl and beat it. Grab a ladle of the your sauce and slowly dribble it into the egg yolk, while whisking. Do this a little bit at a time until you have about a cup or so of liquid. Whisk for a few seconds until well combined, and then add it back to your hot pot. Whisk the egg yolk mixture into the hot liquid until thickened.
Heavy cream, sour cream, or yogurt are all excellent for thickening soups and sauces, but you have to be careful about boiling them or they may break and curdle.
Pureed vegetables are also an excellent thickener, especially starchy veggies like potatoes or turnips. Cauliflower also makes a nice thickener when steamed and mashed, as do cooked beans or lentils. Using vegetables as thickening agents is a popular technique by chefs or home cooks that want to lighten up a meal. It’s a great way to get into healthy cooking without having to give up your favorite creamed soups or sauces.
Keep in mind that while these mixtures can mimic a creamy texture without the addition of milk or cream, you will likely not have the perfect velvety texture you get from heavy cream.
Do’s and Don’ts of Thickening
DO choose the right thickener for the right soup or sauce. Tomato paste works well for tomato soup or sauces, but is not the ideal choice for a cream based sauce.
DO think about the flavor profiles of what you’re cooking before deciding on a thickening agent. Cornstarch is an easy, all purpose option that will work for most choices.
DO try reducing your soup or sauce before you do anything else. If you’ve added a thickener during the cooking process (such as starting with a roux), sometimes all you need is to let the flour do its job, and this takes some time. Before panicking because you have a thin sauce, bring it to a boil and turn the heat down to a low simmer. Simmer for 10-15 minutes to reduce; this might be all you need.
DO add more liquid if you’ve added too much of your thickening agent of choice, but beware that every time you add something to your dish, you’re changing the flavor.
DO follow a recipe if you have one, and measure the ingredients carefully. While cooking is different from baking in that you have a little more leeway when it comes to adding ingredients, if you’re trying to make a soup or sauce that’s the right texture, you need to have almost exact ingredients. Recipes, especially those that come from reputable sources like cooking magazines, are tested to be perfect. If you measure carefully and add the ingredients at the right time, you should have few problems.
DO remember that your dish will thicken up as it cools. If you’re using a hot sauce for dinner and won’t have any left, this may not be a problem, but if you’re making a soup that you want to eat the next day, it may be overly thick and require adjustment, which will affect the flavor.
DO cook your sauce until it coats the back of a spoon. It should dribble nicely onto dish and not hang onto your spoon in globs.
DON’T just add flour, cornstarch, or any other dry good to hot liquid. It will not dissolve or incorporate no matter how much you whisk, stir, or cook it. You will have clumps that will be noticeable in your final product.
DON’T estimate amounts when making a roux, slurry, or beurre manie. Equal parts fat (or cornstarch) and liquid are optimal for thickening.
DON’T add too much thickener at once. While it is easy to thin out a soup or sauce, every time you add anything to your sauce, you’re changing the flavor. Too much thickener can also add a starchy flavor.
DON’T panic because your sauce didn’t come out right the first time. If you’ve made it separately, you can always try again.
DON’T make an elegant dish with a rich sauce for company for the first time. Always make it for you or your family to try out so that you get the hang of the recipe. You don’t want to serve a lumpy or flavorless sauce for an important dinner or a holiday when everyone is counting on good food.
DO practice. Sauce making is a cooking technique that isn’t always easy and requires experience to get right. Like any other aspect of cooking, it probably won’t come out perfectly the first time, but it will get easier as you experiment with different methods and recipes.
A sauce can make or break a meal, but it’s not always the easiest thing in the world to make. Sometimes, what seems like an easy fix (such as just adding more flour to a hot sauce) will backfire on new cooks, who can easily get discouraged into thinking it can’t be done. Good soup and sauce making skills don’t come naturally; instead they come with practice, patience, and the desire for an amazing meal.