The right thickness gives a sauce, stew or soup richness, texture and added heartiness. While there are any number of ways to thicken liquids as you cook, three of the most commonly used methods are tried-and-true simple solutions using ingredients that are easily found at your local grocery store.
Use a Roux
Flour is a great tool for thickening soups, stews or sauces. However, when flour is placed directly into liquids, it tends to clump together and form lumps. When combined with fat, however, flour can give liquids a thick, smooth and even consistency with an opaque coloring. In a roux, equal parts flour and liquid fat -- such as oil, melted butter or fat rendered from cooked meat -- are stirred together over medium heat until they form a paste. Stir in water, broth, stock, milk or cream little by little until the right consistency is reached. A roux offers a thick, creamy consistency when used with milk, and a thick, gravy-like consistency when combined with water, making it ideal for white sauces, gravies and heartier, thicker soups.
Use a Slurry
Adding a cornstarch slurry into liquid at the end of the cooking process is an effective way to add thickness. A slurry is equal parts cornstarch and cold water, mixed briskly together until the cornstarch completely dissolves. Used in the right amounts, a slurry gives liquids a shiny, translucent quality and a consistency that coats the back of a spoon, but pours easily and fluidly. Slurries are commonly used to thicken fruit juices, vegetable juices and clear broth. Sweet chili sauce, sweet and sour sauce, duck sauce and many fruit sauces are made using a slurry.
Reduce, Reduce, Reduce
The easiest and often most efficient way to thicken a soup, stew or sauce is to remove any cooked meat or vegetables, strain the remaining liquid and boil it vigorously until the volume decreases. Reducing liquids blends and intensifies flavors and creates a texture that's smooth and consistent. If you want to add a bit more thickness, consider adding in a few spoonfuls of pasta water, pureed vegetables, potato flakes, or cream.
Tips and Tricks
When it comes to using a roux or slurry, follow recipe directions carefully to get a feel for how much you need to add to create the right thickness. Too much of either will create a sauce that's too thick. You can add in more liquid to fix the problem, but you may end up with a lot more sauce than you planned. When using the reduction method, check the liquid frequently to ensure that it doesn't burn. Because the flavors intensify as the water boils out, it's best to deliberately underseason the liquid and add more flavor in at the end.
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