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Why Did My Sauce Break?

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I am very much an amateur when it comes to sauces, so I would really like to understand what happened to a sauce I made the other night. It was a french sauce from Laura Calder's cookbook and I followed it exactly but when I added the cream I ended up with a curdled type consistency.

The recipe called for 1T of butter and 1T of oil. Fry some chicken pieces until brown, add back to the pan and cover for 25 minutes. Remove the chicken and make the sauce in the chicken juices. I added 2/3C of wine and a minced shallot and deglazed. Boiled for 5 minutes then added 3/4C cream and some herbs. The recipe said to let it simmer for another 3 and add lemon juice and serve. However as soon as I added the cream you could see that there was just too much oil and it was in no way fused. So I started whisking.. but it never came together.

What went wrong? Was it a temperature thing? The cream was cold... Maybe the proportions just weren't right? Maybe I should've poured off some fat before adding the wine?

Any help is appreciated :)

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  1. Too much fat, I think. Sometimes you find too much fat breaks the emulsion even of things that were good before you added them, if that makes sense. Like if you add mayo too quickly to more fat it can break completely. Same with cream. Dump it into hot fat and it can separate. Lemon juice sometimes curdles dairy but the way you describe sounds like fat- esp if the chicken was anything but skinless breasts. Pour off the fat, and also make sure you reduce the wine- don't go by cooking time. This recipe sounds like the wine should be reduced to, I'd guess, 2 T or less when you add the cream.

    1. When you added the cream the sauce was too hot, so a temperature thing. I've done that :(

      1 Reply
      1. re: seahag

        I think both of these responses are right. I wouldn't put cream into anything boiling.

      2. Were you using 35% or higher milk fat cream?

        1. You needed to defat after browning and cooking covered for 25 minutes. As c'tine says, you needed to reduce the wine. This may be a repeat due to the stuttering system.

          1. Before you deglaze, pour off all the fat. If you browned the chicken properly, there should be brown bits, or 'fond', at the bottom of the pan. Thats where the flavor is coming from. After the wine has deglazed and reduced with the shallots a little, remove from heat and whisk in room temp cream.

            Just make sure you get rid of that oil, this isn't an emulsified sauce by any means, or even a beurre blanc, just a pan sauce finished with cream.

            1. Hot liquid (especially acidic) + cold cream = curdling. Try to have the temps of the two liquids as balanced as possible, or add very little cream at a time and fully integrate it into the sauce before adding a little bit more ...

              1. Thanks so much everybody!! Too bad it didn't work as it really was a great recipe, I will have to try it again with all your suggestions.

                It was half and half and the wine has reduced a bunch but there was still a lot of liquid in th pan.

                6 Replies
                1. re: daily_unadventures

                  As I suspected, your problem was the cream. McGee: "The casein proteins in milk and cream are stable to boiling temperatures, but they're sensitive to acidity, and the combination of heat and acid will cause them to curdle. Many sauces include flavorful acid ingredients: sauté pans are often deglazed with wine, for example. This means that most milk and cream products, including light cream and sour cream, can't actually be cooked to make a sauce; they must be added as a last-minute enhancement. The exceptions are heavy cream and crème fraîche, which contain so little casein that its curdling isn't noticeable."

                  I've never had a problem adding cold heavy cream to hot acidic liquids. Am looking at a Joël Robuchon recipe that I've made before and that calls for 2/3 cup of heavy cream (mines always cold) to be added to 1 cup of simmering Chardonnay. Last weekend, I added 40% MF crème fraîche straight from the fridge to a sauté pan deglazed with wine and a bit of sherry vinegar. Not a curdle in sight.

                  1. re: carswell

                    Interesting and good to know.

                    1. re: carswell

                      I don't understand though - it makes sense according to Mr. McGee - but how come it wasn't a problem for you?

                      1. re: daily_unadventures

                        You used half & half, yes? carswell used cream. Cream doesn't break, half & half does.
                        You can pour cream into boiling caramel and it won't break.

                        1. re: daily_unadventures

                          What rabaja said.

                          Heavy cream (aka whipping cream or cooking cream) is typically 35%MF, crème frâche 40%, i.e. more fat, less casein. But half and half is around 15%, i.e. less fat, more casein. And, as McGee points out, in the presence of heat and acid, more casein is not a good thing.

                          1. re: carswell

                            The main problem was the combo of an unstable dairy and an acid (the wine and lemon juice).

                            One tip is to when you deglaze with white wine and add a shallot,
                            cook until much of the wine is evaporated -- till it is au sec (dry) -- and the shallots have absorbed much of the wine flavor and the fat.

                            Another: The cream (not half and half) is often heated before adding (the temp change *may* have been another factor contributing to the problem), and at that point, the cream is fairly stable.

                            Finally: With any cream sauce, the addition of acid after the fact -- lemon juice here -- is very tricky. Better to add it first, in the form of wine, lemon juice, or vinegar, and reduce it to au sec with the shallots -- the method for making the two classic French sauces beurre blanc and bearnaise.

                    2. Aside from using a higher fat cream, consider using an immersion blender to help stabilize (suggestion from a chef friend)