It’s been said that the difference between a good cook and a great cook is how well they hide their mistakes. I tend to agree. Let’s face it, we’re all going to totally blow it in the kitchen from time to time. Everything from forgetting to turn the oven on, to screwing up the timing between different elements of the meal, to making that lovely steak into a charcoal briquet can and will happen. Sometimes, repeatedly. But let me state right here right now when these little foibles happen you have not “ruined” dinner. The only time you’ve ruined the food is when you give up trying to play with it, and turn it into something better. Don’t. Give. Up.
Some of the best ways to hide the mistakes are to quite literally hide them in a sauce. There are thousands of sauces out there, and with a bit of this and a dab of that, you can look truly brilliant with a minimum amount of work. I like to break down sauces into three categories, based on how they thicken. Reduction, Roux, and Slurry methods will comprise almost all the sauces you’ll encounter.
With Reduction, you start with a lot of flavored liquid and end up with thicker, highly concentrated flavors by boiling out the excess water. This is how we end up with molasses, syrup, most pan sauces for meats, most jams and jellies, and the like. It really is as simple as it sounds. Add heat to the liquid and bring it to a boil, then allow for the water to go away. One word of warning though. When working with sweet reductions, remember the liquid will thicken considerably as it cools and the sugars begin to set up. The nice thing about this method is you can reverse the process by simply adding more water back in and doing it again.
Roux Sauces start with a fat and a thickening agent like flour that are heated until completely combined, then adding it to a cooler liquid like chick stock or cream. To make a Roux, use the “rule of 2”. 2 tablespoons flour, 2 tablespoons fat (butter – always go for butter, first), and 2 cups of milk or cream. Melt the butter over low heat, then add your flour. Keep it low and slow, like a Barry White album, stirring constantly. DO NOT BURN YOUR ROUX. Low. Slow. Stir. Constantly. No joke. Here’s the trick. The longer you cook it the deeper the flavors become, but the less thickening effect the flour will have. A thick white sauce requires very little cooking time, while a deep Cajun dish demands a roux that’s almost burnt. The key word is almost. Burn the roux, toss it out. Fortunately, you’re looking at about 23 cents worth of ingredients here at this point. Once your roux is the consistency you’re looking for, add your cold liquid. Adding the cold to the warm allows you time to fully incorporate the mixture. The magic happens at the simmer. As the mixture warms it’ll bloom into a wonderfully thick, creamy sauce.
Slurry sauces are a perfect backup for everything else. Just add 2 tablespoons corn starch to a couple cups of cold liquid. Water is fine, but milk is better. Stir until incorporated, then add to any sauce that needs thickening a bit at a time. As it heats, it’ll thicken. If it’s still too thin, do it again. It works. Really. Stew too thin? Slip in a slurry. Bisque gone bad? Slurry the sweet snot out of it!
So far all we’ve done is take something thin and watery and made it thick. We’ve added very little flavor. On one hand, that’s half the charm of doing this. We’re not changing anything unless we want to. But what if we do? What if we need to change the flavor of a thing, to hide that mistake? Bring on the seasoning! Here’s where we play with our food…
Feel free to liberally add>
- White Pepper
- Or anything else that strikes your fancy.
Really, go crazy. Figure out what works for you, and do it. Lots.
By the way, a couple of other ways of thickening a sauce involve cheese and eggs. Stay tuned, for more on these two lovely ways of food-craft!