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Curry Sauce is Breaking...Why?

I've recently starting making Indian curries with Patak's curry paste. Loving the flavor, but with the last two I've made, the sauce has started breaking. There are bubbles, and it looks like it's separating. I'm not sure why? The recipe has a can of coconut milk in it - I'm assuming it's a reaction with that? Anyone have any ideas? It still tastes very good, but kind of icky to look at-


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  1. Did you shake the can well before using it ?? If yes, then maybe it's a disproportionate amount of coconut milk you're using. You can probably tie that sauce back up with a tiny bit of oil or ghee. Give that a try before cutting back on the amount of coconut milk. Have you cooked the sauce down enough ?? Try reducing it some more also.

    1. Many dishes served in Indian restaurants here in the UK have sauces which appear split, with little pools of oil on the surface. This is not considered a fault, more a reflection of the fairly high quantities of ghee used in the cooking. However, I agree that it looks unattractive and spooning some off must surely reduce fat intake.

      Standard coconut milk is very high in fat and, again, splitting is quite normal and accepted. The longer curries containing coconut milk are cooked, the more they split, I find.

      Removing some oil does noticeably pull back the flavour though.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Robin Joy

        Your suggestion is similar to Thai curry where the oil gathering on top is not a sign of breakage, but of a done/correct curry. However, I do not know enough about Indian curry to know if it is exactly the same idea or not.

        My only other suggestion would be that perhaps your heat is too high and a low to medium heat might help the separation. Hopefully someone with more knowledge can chime in as I'm interested to know the answer.

      2. Curry sauces aren't emulsified like French sauces are. Many Indian recipes will tell you to cook sauces until the fat separates out as a sign of doneness.

        1. It's normal in Indian, Thai, Malay, Indonesian etc curries. Mostly you cook or reduce till the sauce breaks.
          I've been told never to boil coconut milk with a lid on, but am not 100% sure why that is

          1. Some tips I have seen on the Internet:

            1) Shake well before using coconut milk.

            2) Bring the coconut milk to room temperature.

            3) Add small quantities while stirring well and on low heat

            4) This applies to yogurt also.

            1. I have never used pre-made curry mixes like Pataks, but yes the oil is supposed to rise to the top of the gravy, a sign which means that the ingredients no longer have any rawness to then and indicates doneness, in South Asian cooking. Many Indian restaurants add a heavy dose of cream to their sauces, which keeps the oil inside the sauce so you don't notice it as much unless there is a lot of oil. However, homemade food rarely contains cream, and therefore it is normal to see oil rise out of a gravy. I never thought of the oil rising to the top as the sauce splitting, actually, since this is a desired effect.

              1 Reply
              1. re: luckyfatima

                Exactly. Oil rising to the top/separating out is a sign of "done-ness" in curries.

                That addition of loads of cream to (Westernized) Indian dishes seems to be done with a heavy hand frequently in restaurants in the US and is a pet peeve (and dislike) of mine.

              2. There are two issues here. Is the sauce really breaking or is there so much oil in the dish before the coconut milk is added that the coconut milk simply can not incorporate it?

                1. High heat will break a coconut milk sauce or a cream sauce. Just turn down to medium to reduce. I know the Thai coconut milk sauces are almost always broken and that's because of too much high heat. They may want it that way and it may be authentic but it's still because of high heat. If an Italian, French or American cream sauce was broken it would be considered a failure.

                2. If there is so much oil in the dish before the coconut milk is added it just can't incorporate it all and will float to the top.

                Coconut milk does take some time to reduce ( as does cream) so you might want to take the food items out of the pan before adding the coconut milk, let it reduce at medium heat, then add the rest of the ingrediants back in.

                3 Replies
                1. re: cajundave

                  Thank you all for all the helpful tips and suggestions - perhaps I should just leave it the way it is, if it's acceptable, but I think I'll try some of the suggestions and see if I can reduce the fat situation a bit.

                  Thank you!

                  1. re: lovessushi

                    Hi Love,

                    You might wish to try the Shan mixes. I think that you'll be very impressed. Just saute your onions, then remove, then saute puree'd ginger and/or puree'd garlic for 1-2 min with some oil - then add some Shan mix. Stir like crazy for a bit, then toss in your meat and onions and stir.

                    Now you can do whatever ... add some tomato sauce .... OR Tomato Paste ... OR ... yogurt ... OR ... coconut milk ... Or some soy sauce. Whatever you like. I mix it up all the time. When I use coconut milk I first toss it in the blender so that it's fully integrated. Near the end, add some sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste. At the end, drop in some dried fenugreek leaves and stir around - yum! Magic!

                    Don't worry about the fat, so long as it's good fat. If you make your own sauce then you control what oil is used and therefore ensure that it's all good fat. Enjoy it. The high glycemic carbs are the one's to watch out for. They are what causes our bodies to produce insulin spikes, feel tired after a big meal and readily store calories as fat. You can have loads of good fat in your diet and get leaner while eating really well.

                    Skip the bread, rice, potatoes, etc - and substitute in squash, brussels sprouts, broccoli, etc. And it's ok to eat some of the 'bad carbs' - just make sure that you also eat protein/fat. This will control how our bodies produce insulin.

                    1. re: jkling17

                      Madhur Jaffrey has suggested when adding yoghurt or coconut milk to take the pan off the heat, slowly stir it in then move it back on. Don't know the science behind it but will take her word!

                      I also find lower fat content stuff usually splits easier than the full fat (and therefore full fat should always be used!)

                2. Wow. You are trying to get rid of what I consider the "magic moment" when making a curry. I love the way that some colors of the spices are carried with the oil when it separates while others remain with the rest of the sauce, giving it an interesting marbled effect. I so much prefer that to a monochromatic sauce so striven for in Western food. I have even been guilty of (hee hee) using a little food coloring to exaggerate the effect!