A constant challenge in food presentation is having the optimum consistency of sauces, whether savory or sweet. This gives stability and control of placement of your sauce, hence staying power and beauty in sheen and texture.
Thinning is usually pretty straight forward. Just add the appropriate liquid, one that is compatible in both flavor and content; oil, sugar or acid base, until you reach the desired flow. The trickier techniques are in thickening. Two styles of thickening are cold and hot.
Sauces, salsas, dressings…condiments and creamy things you don’t want to heat can be thickened with ease so that they stay where you put them on your creation or hold a peak. Line a tray with 8 – 10 layers of paper towels. Pour the sauce into the center of the pan and spread evenly to within two inches of the edges. You may need more than one tray to accommodate the volume of your sauce. Use your common sense.
You will see the water or oil wicked into the towels at the edges. Let it rest a half an or more,depending on the difference between the initial thickness and the desired result. Once you are satisfied, scrape it off with a large spoon or spatula and place it into a bowl. Stir it gently to homogenize the thickness and texture. Now it is ready to use.
Syrups, sauces, glazes and gravies… things that can be cooked can be thickened in several ways.
The first way is to cook out some of the liquid by boiling it until it is the desired thickness. This does not work on egg based sauces such as Hollandaise, due to the butter content, which is very heat sensitive and requires special handling. If the sauce has a high sugar content, be careful not to boil it too long or it will become hard at room temperature. Use a thermometer to check your progress. Candy thermometers have thickness guides on them. Here is a handy chart that can also help if you don’t have a thermometer. If you want a pourable sugary sauce, don’t go above 230F’.
Candy Temperature chart
Thread 223-235’F Syrup drips from spoon, forms thin threads in water- Glace and Candied fruits
Soft Ball 235-245F’ Syrup forms a ball while in cold water – Fudge and Fondant
Firm Ball 245-250F’ Syrup forms into a stable ball but loses its round shape when pressed- Caramel
Hard Ball 250-265F’ Syrup holds its ball shape but remains sticky -Divinity and Marshmallows
Soft Crack 270-290F’ Syrup will form firm but pliable threads -Nougat
Hard Crack 300-310F’ Syrup will crack if you try to mold it -Brittles and Lollipops
Caramel 320-350F’ Clear syrup will turn golden -Praline
The second way is to whisk in a starch powder such as arrow root, corn starch, and xanthan or guar gum, into the liquid or sauce while it is cool, then boil it until the milkiness of the starch is gone, the the syrup, sauce glaze or gravy has changed back to it’s original color, and the desired thickness. If you are going to use it cool or at room temperature you need to allow for the additional thickening that will occur by cooling. Test a small amount on a cold surface or use the ice bath technique. (See Sept. 16 entry)
If the sauce is too thick, add some of the unthickened sauce into the hot thickened batch and test again. If it is not thick enough you must cool part of the batch to incorporate more starch. If you add starch into hot liquid it will lump up and will be hard to incorporate smoothly. Strain out the lumps or use a food processor or blender to smooth it out and reheat. It won’t work if your sauce has bits in it that you want to keep such as bits of fruit, vegetables or herbs.
There are some instant gel thickening products on the market that are even easier but have their limits, such as Simply Thick. Be careful of creating bubbles by stirring it carefully into a small amount of your sauce first, until smooth, then gradually and carefully add the rest of your sauce. No need for heating.
It may sound complicated but it is just a matter of paying close attention.