The holidays are a saucy time. And I'm not talking about what happens when boozy eggnog and mistletoe are in close proximity. Where would your Thanksgiving turkey be without its sidekick, gravy? What would macaroni and cheese be without a stellar béchamel?
Truly though, every time of year is a good time for sauce. I am a big believer in the idea that sauce makes everything better. I prefer my eggs Benedict swimming in hollandaise; I will ask for extra salsa on the side. Sauces can cover most woes (dry meat, underseasoned vegetables). They make every dish more savory, more exciting. Isn't the best part of any meal swiping a crust of bread over your plate to pick up the last of a truly great sauce?
However, like many of our favorite things (pie dough, yeasted things), some sauces can be intimidating to tackle at home. They come with some inherent risk. What if your alfredo breaks, and instead of a velvety, cheesy sauce you have a watery, curdle-filled mess? What if your gravy starts to separate? Apologies if you had never feared these outcomes before I brought them up; but it can't hurt to be prepared.
In order to beat these sauce problems, you must first understand them.
Dairy has three main components: fat, proteins, and water. Curdling occurs when the proteins in a sauce denature and bind together, separating from the water and tightening up into curds.
Dairy or egg-y sauces can curdle for several reasons:
Fun fact: According to Atomic Kitchen, camel’s milk will not curdle! So there's always that option.
Once a sauce has curdled, it can be very difficult to return proteins to their original state. And while it’s perfectly safe to eat sauces that have curdled, it’s not especially appetizing. Here are a few strategies to combat curdling:
Sauces will break (the butter or oil separates from the sauce) for many of the same reasons that they curdle. Maybe you...
You know your sauce is about to break when you see little fat droplets forming around the edge. If this happens, halt: Add a tablespoon or so of liquid and whisk vigorously until the sauce tightens back up. Then you can resume gradually adding your fat.
If your sauce has broken completely, there is still hope.
If none of these strategies work, there’s nothing to do but start over. Pour yourself a glass of wine, then pat yourself on the back: You just had a learning experience! Curdled sauces? Broken dreams? Never again.
Do you have any tips for fixing sauces that have curdled or broken? Or any memorable stories involving a sauce slip-up? Tell us in the comments!