Even simple dishes can become company fare with the addition of a sauce. For warm sauces or gravies based on dairy products or meat juices, flour is an easy-to-use thickener. In the right amount, flour provides a smooth, substantial quality that lets sauces flow. Knowing the standard measures of flour required for sauces of different consistencies lets you create casseroles and main dishes that look elegant while taking only a little effort to make.
The Sauce Thickens . . .
You can thicken a liquid with flour -- without encountering the lumps created by pouring flour in directly to the liquid -- in three different ways. The easiest mixture, often called a slurry, is created by stirring a measure of flour thoroughly into cold water or milk, approximately 1/4 cup of liquid to a tablespoon of flour. Rapid beating with a whisk or fork keeps lumps from forming. This mixture can be used when the main sauce liquid already contains fat. A slurry is useful if making gravy with meat drippings, for example. The taste of uncooked flour is masked by the generally strong flavors of gravy. Beurre manie is the French word for butter or other solid fat mashed into raw flour. A tablespoon of fat is usually used for 1 to 2 tablespoons of flour. When the fat is melted and flour is cooked in it till lightly browned, the combination is called roux. Both beurre manie and roux are intended to diminish an unwanted flour taste.
Whatever method you use to prepare flour, the proportion of prepared flour to sauce liquid determines the consistency of the sauce. Food professionals define a thin sauce as having 1 tablespoon of flour to each cup of liquid. The extra liquid used to make a slurry is unlikely to affect the overall consistency of the sauce. Use thin-sauce proportions when making meat gravy or scalloped potatoes, and use only half as much flour mixture when thickening a cream soup. It is always easier to add thickening than reduce it, so a cautious approach spares you having to add more liquid and correct the seasonings of your recipe.
Medium white sauce, or sauce bechamel, made with 2 tablespoons each of flour and fat for each cup of liquid, is the workhorse of thickened dairy sauces. Measurements may vary slightly from one recipe to the next, but this medium white sauce turns leftovers into casseroles and can form the foundation of macaroni and cheese. Flour can be increased slightly if cheese is added to the sauce, to prevent extra fat from separating the sauce. Use these proportions with meat or vegetable broth when making shepherd's pie, turkey tetrazzini or other creamy-sauced casseroles. A flour-and-water slurry can produce a medium sauce, but roux or beurre manie are the traditional choices for classic bechamel.
Thick sauce requires 3 tablespoons of flour, made into slurry, roux or beurre manie, for each cup of liquid. This sauce is the foundation for cheese, spinach and other souffles. You may also see these proportions called for in the thick, egg-enriched top layer of moussaka.
A Firm Foundation
A sauce thickened with 4 tablespoons of flour, mixed with fat or water, per cup of liquid can be formed into a free-standing shape or sliced with a knife. A favorite base for salmon, ham, potato or vegetable croquettes, this old-fashioned mixture is seldom seen in recipes for today's lighter eating.
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