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How to thicken braising liquid while keeping it pretty (clear)?

I know of three ways to thicken my braising liquid to serve it as a sauce:

1) flour / roux
2) cornstarch
3) reduction

I don't like method #1 because it turns the liquid an ugly murky color that is just not appealing to me.

#2 is similar to #1, plus the mouthfeel of cornstarch-thickened liquids isn't the best.

I haven't had much success with #3, but it seems promising. Concentrated flavors, no murky thickeners. However, it seems you have to reduce your liquid at least 8x-10x (1 cup to 1 tablespoon) in order to get adequate thickening. But inevitably, then, it ends up too salty or I just don't have enough braising liquid to make enough sauce to coat all of my meat.

Does anyone have any suggestions? Maybe add a ton of homemade stock to give me more gelatin to work with? Maybe then I won't have to reduce it down to nothing. Maybe add in some sheet gelatin? Maybe add like 2 quarts of chicken stock before braising, and then reduce it down to 2 cups before I braise? Any advice will be much appreciated.

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  1. For an additive, I believe pure Arrowroot is what you're looking for. Although I haven't used it in a while, I think I remember that you have to add it at the very end of cooking, when your liquid is off the heat - I don't remember what happens otherwise...... Also, I read recently that some Arrowroot "products" are being "cut" with potato starch which will give an unwanted milky appearance; so be careful with what you buy - if that is what you choose.

    2 Replies
    1. re: CocoaNut

      Arrowroot fails to thicken if it is too hot - I learned that the hard way by simmering it to thicken chicken a la king. It was okay at first, but when I reheated it was thin and soupy. It seems to me that cornstarch makes sauces shinier than arrowroot does.

    2. Try using a smaller or more shallow cooking vessel (less liquid in general) or cutting your meat into smaller pieces, which would also allow smaller amounts of liquid. Try adding some wine or something similar at the beginning and reducing that down to a syrup - that helps if only minimally. You could also get in the habit of adding some tomato paste at the beginning of the cooking process. Other than that, I think flour it a great option.

      1. From the molecular side, there's always methylcellulose, guar gum, xanthan gum, carageenan, Ultratex3 and Ultratex8. If you wanted to make a funky fluid gel out of your braising liquid, you can add Gellan to that list.

        For non-molecular options, the way I fortified a reduction was to toss in some veal glace de viande just prior to finishing the sauce. It's essentially a chunk of gelatin derived from veal bone so adding sheet gelatin will probably do something similar; either way the sauce is sticky.

        None of these options should make your reduction cloudy/murky but you're going to have to finely filter your braising liquid to get rid of the particulate matter.

        Tapioca starch is another alternative and doesn't significantly cloud the product, but place that in the cornstarch/arrowroot category.

        5 Replies
        1. re: wattacetti

          Very helpful reply, wattacetti. Do you have any more information about the first paragraph options? How do I use those materials, and what do they really do? What are the differences between those options? On a related note, why does mayonnaise get thick?

          For paragraph #2, how much glace de viande do you use, proportionally to your braising liquid? Do you make it or buy one of the retail products, like More than Gourmet? If the latter, do you have a preferred brand and source?

          What do you use to strain the liquid? I've had moderate success using thick paper towels, but you end up losing a lot of liquid that way. I'm definitely interested in other options.

          1. re: jeremyn

            For the molecular options, a good starting place is Martin Lersch's hydrocolloid recipe collection found on his blog (blog.khymos.org; look for the recipe collection drop down menu).

            The materials I listed are used as food industry thickeners and stabilizers. For how to use these materials, it depends on what you're trying to accomplish for your reduction, what look you want and what mouthfeel you're after. Methocellulose in large quantities for instance, makes "slime" (as in Ghostbusters slime). If it's just to thicken a sauce, you are not going to use a whole lot (it will be in sub-gram quantities), but I can't give you more than that because I don't know what volume you're starting with nor what's in your braising liquid. I tend to go with xanthan gum first, but again, depends on your application.

            I make all my stocks, so no recommendations on retail products. Glace de viande is essentially veal bones and water but if you want a higher gelatin content, throw in as many veal feet as you can obtain. Then slowly simmer for a few hours; after you take out the bones and leftover bits and strain/de-fat the liquid, it'll be reduce and skim, reduce and skim until you're down to what you need. You'll also want to strain this as well (nylon mesh filter is okay, do it while liquid is hot).

            I like to clarify stocks by agar gel or gelatin filtration (again, see Lersch if you haven't done it) but you lose the mouthfeel because you remove whatever gelatin is in the liquid to begin with (I add back gelatin if I need to). it also takes a lot of time.

            You can also do the traditional consommé clarification method with a meat and egg white raft, but again, that takes time and adds cost.

            If you want to just filter as much of the big stuff as possible, let your liquid stand in a tall narrow container so that all the large bits fall to the bottom by gravity (couple of hours). Then strain the cold liquid (leave the portion with the chunky bits in the container) through a fine metal or nylon mesh strainer set over a funnel packed with cheesecloth set over a second extra-fine nylon mesh strainer. if you don't want to be that anal-retentive, just use several layers of balled cheesecloth in a fine nylon mesh filter. You can gently push down on the cheesecloth to extract additional liquid.

            1. re: wattacetti

              Again, very helpful reply!

              I'm intrigued by the gelatin filtration. Lersch's recipe seems to indicate he's starting with a gelatin-free liquid. Do you think I'd need to add any gelatin if I do it on a stock that already gels completely in the fridge? If I did this, how much gelatin do you recommend adding back to the finished product to simulate a "regular" stock?

              Have you had success straining with coffee filters? Or do you know of an extra-fine strainer that is reusable and works as well or better? If I'm using it for the gelatin filtration method, I think I'd want something significantly larger than coffee filters (larger surface area, not pore size). I suspect my regular strainer's pore size is too large.

              I really appreciate all the help. It sounds like xanthan gum might be the best place to start for my thickening question. My scale's finest resolution is grams, so I'll have to go by eye / trial-and-error. I'm hoping that I can achieve a crystal clear, thickened liquid to use as a sauce. I'm looking forward to experimenting with the gelatin filtration too.

              1. re: jeremyn

                If you already have a liquid that gels lightly when it's cooled in the refrigerator, you don't need to add anything else; just freeze and get started. Just remember that the thicker the gel, the lower the yield as you're looking for the clear liquid that leeches out by syneresis.

                If you don't have a liquid that gels at all (e.g. juice) of if you haven't reduced enough, then you add gelatin or agar. Agar filtration works about 3x faster.

                How much gelatin you need depends on how much mouthfeel you want. If you're using those Knox gelatin sachets, one sachet is designed to hard-set 500 mL liquid so you could always play around with how that works for you.

                I use basket coffee filters when doing gel filtration; they fit nicely into an Oxo wire mesh strainer and will hold blocks. Smaller blocks filter faster but if you have a lot of time and a lot of refrigerator space, use multiple layers of cheesecloth.

                You're also not using that much xanthan gum, unless you want something really thick or you have a lot of liquid. We're talking point of a paring knife quantities, but again, get some and try it out with water to see what happens.

                Most scales with gram resolution cannot accurately resolve 1.0 g (I've seen it off by up to 3 g), but if you want to get seriously into molecular techniques, you'll need to invest in a jeweler's scale (0.05 or 0.01 g), which can be as low as $40.

            2. re: jeremyn

              << "I've had moderate success using thick paper towels, but you end up losing a lot of liquid that way." >>

              Try dampenning the paper towels with water before filtering so they don't absorb all your hard work.

          2. Potato starch. Use it like cornstarch (blend with a bit of water prior to introduction to the mix) and cook at a low boil as you might any other thickening agent. It will handle high heat better than cornstarch or flour and develops a translucent gravy/sauce.

            1. Hmmm ... I can see that flour changes the look of a sauce (it's what I use for braises--good enough for Julia, good enough for me), but IMO not in a bad way. We've always used cornstarch in my family for a clear gravy. (It can fail over time, in which case you just add more.) I like the shiny effect.

              I can't imagine wanting to use a nasty commercial thickener like guar gum or some unpronouceable thing you'd find on a box ...

              1. I think you are looking for the holy grail. Braising is suppose to be a rustic dish. A reduction sauce should be serve in small amount because it is so intense. Serving too much of it makes a dish off balance, way too rich. It is not meant for stews and braises. Over-reduction in itself can leave a sticky gelatinous mouthfeel and try putting an overly reduced sauce on a warm plate, gel in a second and stick to the bottom of the plate. Same with any molecular compounds such as gum. I think a small amount of cornstarch is still the best: the braising liquid will be clear without any additional flavor.

                1. i doubt i cook as elegantly as many posters here. however, it seems to me that much of the discussion treats distinct preparations as if they were slight variations of one another. i like nicely reduced, fundamentally clear pan sauces; i like thickened gravy; and i like rustic robust braising liquids. i just don't try to make one into the other very often. there are times when a braising liquid might be transformed into a gravy but i'm hard pressed to think of a time when a braising liquid is treated like a pan sauce. this seems to be the objective here.

                  if braising, there will be a fairly high volume of liquid--enough to partly cover the target meat. there'll very likely be a vegetable base, maybe some tomato paste or chunks. you can strain it, reduce it some, or turn it into a gravy. i just don't see how you can transform it into a pan sauce. maybe i'm missing something. if i want my braising liquid thick,--as for say, pot roast--i cook it down a bit, skim and adjust the fat, add some flour, call it gravy and enjoy the daylights out of it. in such a straight ahead, homey meal, the flour seems perfectly--well-- at home.

                  6 Replies
                  1. re: silverhawk

                    I think it depends on what the braise is intended for, since braising for me is a technique and the end product can be served as-is or further manipulated into something else. Braising also does not automatically equate "rustic" or "homey", since I have seen braised dishes at Guy Savoy (Paris), and three-stars just don't do rustic and homey.

                    If I were braising and serving something like a shank (souris d'agneau), I could strain the braising liquid and then simply reduce to get a thickened sauce. If I was doing a beef daube and using that by say, stuffing a new onion with it and serving with a sunchoke purée and chanterelles, you better believe I'm going to clarify the liquid and do what I can to get the nicest clearest texturally-relevant sauce for my plating requirement.

                    I am not sure where jeremyn's requirements fall (probably between these two extremes), but I think it's nice to have options.

                    1. re: wattacetti

                      PBSF and silverhawk make valid points, but as wattacetti said, I want the option of a perfectly clear sauce for when that is appropriate, and right now, I'm having trouble doing it.

                      I plan to try some of the suggestions on this thread and see what happens. Maybe I'll find the holy grail!

                      1. re: jeremyn

                        If I want to elevate a ragout for an important occasion:
                        Braise the meat, aromatic, etc. in a flavorful stock. When the meat is done, take them out. Strain the stock through a double thickness of cheesecloth. Discard the aromatic, etc, without pressing down on them. Refrigerate the braising liquid until it is well chilled. Take off the fat from the top. Spoon the braising liquid into a pot, careful not to get to the very bottom in case there are any fine particles. Place the meat back into the liquid and heat until the meat is hot. Take meat out and keep warm. Reduce the braising liquid until it is the consistency that you want. You might need to add more stock. Strain again if needed. If you don't want to use a thickening agent, turn off heat swirl in some soften butter to give it a little viscosity. Don't whisk because that will cloud your sauce. You should have a fairly clear sauce without having to use egg white to clarify it. This is how we did it when I worked in a high end restaurant. I like a less intense sauce, therefore, I don't reduce it as much and use a very small amount of cornstarch as thickener. And if you plan to serve any vegetables such as mushrooms, carrots, potato, with the meat in the sauce, cook them separately if you want a very elegant clear sauce.

                        1. re: PBSF

                          This is basically my strategy, too, though I rarely use butter. I find that if I reduce the sauce down to the consistency I want, it's too salty...and if I use less salt to begin with, the meat itself isn't salty enough. Maybe I need to add lots of stock at the end, like you suggest, and reduce that down to the consistency I want. That will dilute it from a salt perspective.

                          Or... if I must have a clear sauce, perhaps I'll have to resort to what you mention below and make a sauce separately from the meat.

                          1. re: jeremyn

                            Sauce making takes time, effort and the expense of lots of bones and meat. It is somewhat of a lost art even in the best restaurant kitchens. The starch thicken sauces (except for bechamel type) went out of favor in the seventies when French nouvelle cuisine took hold. At that time, reduction and butter emulsification became all the rage. Now, the trend is to lighter sauces and pan juice. Also, starch is no longer frown upon. Even in the best restaurant kitchens, a little cornstarch or tapioca starch is used to slightly thicken reductions. Both of these starches are clear and leaves no taste.

                      2. re: wattacetti

                        Guy Savoy definitely do not do any "rustic or homey". For such a high end restaurant, the sauce is made separately from the braising of the meat.