Organic Sense

Cream-Thickened Pan-Reduction Sauce

by Terese Allen, Food Editor

return to Sauce Savvy

A great sea change in sauce fashion occurred during the 1970s, when flour-thickened sauces gave way to flourless sauces. Chefs began to use more butter, egg yolks and cream to thicken their sauces and to utilize techniques such as reduction—the boiling down of a sauce liquid to reduce its volume. They’ve since gone on to experiment with many more sauce-making techniques, such as creating light foams and aromatic broths, giving new meanings to the term “sauce.”

But many of the new techniques and ingredients are not readily available to home cooks. The large quantities of long-simmered stock required for some reduction sauces are unwieldy to produce in a home kitchen, for example, and few non-professional cooks keep such equipment as foam-making nitrous oxide dispensers in their cupboards.

One ingredient that is accessible and takes well to a simple reduction technique is heavy cream. James Peterson, author of the authoritative tome, Sauces: Classical and Contemporary Sauce Making (John Wiley & Sons, 2008), says heavy cream is “especially valuable because it is an extremely stable emulsion that can be boiled and reduced to almost any consistency.”

Unlike butter and eggs, heavy cream does not easily break or curdle when it is boiled. Because of its high fat content, heavy cream also works better than milk or half-and-half for reduction sauces. And when home cooks use pasteurized organic heavy cream, they get a reliable thickening agent as well as pure, pasture-fed flavor.

Chefs sometimes prepare reduced heavy cream in largish amounts and then use it as needed it last-minute sauces. For home cooks, a more convenient method is to add heavy cream directly to a sauce base or cooking liquid—such as those in fricassees or braised meat dishes. The two liquids can be reduced together, or one after the other, in the same pot or pan. A good example of this technique is used in the recipe for Skillet-Cooked Pork Chops with Sage Mushroom Cream Sauce.

Whichever method you choose, keep in mind these tips from James Peterson:

  • Reduce cream in a saucepan three or four times its volume; if cream is allowed to boil for even a few seconds, it can easily boil over, if the pan is too small.
  • Give cream a quick whisking or stirring at least every two minutes while it is reducing. Cream that sits untended over heat may break.
  • Don’t cover cream with a lid while it is reducing. Water will condense on the lid and fall into the cream.
  • If your sauce will contain wine, reduce the wine before adding heavy cream. Raw wine will curdle the cream.
  • Note that heavy cream doesn’t begin to thicken noticeably in the first stage of reduction. After it has reduced by about one-third, it will have a light consistency.  It isn’t until after the cream has reduced by forty to fifty percent that you’ll see significant thickening. After that it can become unpleasantly stodgy in texture.

Preparing a cream thickened pan-reduction sauce:

This method works well for cuts like pork chops, fish steaks and chicken breasts. Cook the meat or fish in sauté pan in butter or your choice of fat. As soon as it is done, transfer the meat or fish to a plate and keep it warm.

Discard any fat in the pan. Add a splash or two of wine, if desired, and reduce it by about half, scraping up any tasty bits of the bottom of the pan. Add some stock and reduce it by about half. Now add the heavy cream and continue to reduce, stirring often, until it has the consistency you want.  Some cooks swirl in butter at this point, for extra richness and a glossy look. Finish the sauce by seasoning it to taste with salt and pepper.

(If you are a chef you may want to pass the sauce through a fine-mesh strainer, for extra smoothness. But it you are a home cook, feel free to skip this!)

Recipes

Skillet-Cooked Pork Chops with Sage Mushroom Cream Sauce - A classic--and classy—combination, with a bonus: you can get it to the table in less than thirty minutes.

Rabbit Fricassee with Rosemary Mustard Sauce – Multi-layers of flavor and technique are finished with velvety organic cream and a burst of fresh herb.

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