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Jan 17, 2013 03:45 AM

Why is my curry sauce so pale?

The curry sauces I make are often pale instead of a dark rich colour as they appear in my cookbooks. For example, I just made David Thompson's "aromatic duck curry" and it turned out a very pale beige, almost no colour at all, and with no oil floating on top, instead of the rich dark brown in the photo. The flavour is good, it's just the appearance I'm concerned with. Any suggestions?

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  1. I don't have this exact recipe in my head, but there are generally four reasons why my curries are pale.
    a) Forgetting to roast the dry spices for the curry paste (when that's required).
    b) Using cheap coconut milk/cream.
    c) Using too much coconut milk and/or not enough curry paste.
    d) Holding back on the red chilies when making the paste, as can be the case when having tender-mouthed family members for dinner.

    Generic coconut milk from tins most often contains stabilizers to make it look better and prevent it from forming a solid lump of coconut cream at the top. This also prevents the cream from cracking at high heat, which is actually desirable when you're frying the paste to make it aromatic.
    Try to find tins that are labelled "100 percent", at least for the initial frying. For the cream you're adding later, it's not that important.
    (The fact that you see no oil forming at the top of the dish is most likely the same stabilizers from the coconut milk, so there's your answer to that problem too.)
    Totally discard tins from the large generic supermarket lables that often contain as little as 61 percent coconut material.

    If you can't get your hands on some proper produce, you can simulate the cracked cream by adding a tablespoon of oil before frying it. Or even better, make your own coconut cream from fresh coconut.

    Point d) is a common problem in our house. I usually cheat by adding red bell peppers and a tablespoon ore two of good paprika powder and hope it doesn't affect the taste too much.

    Anyway, I do see your problem. Serving pale curry isn't fun.. Appearance really has a lot to say for how the food is perceived on the palate of the guests.

    1. Traditional indian cooking calls for browning the onions until they are caramelized to a rich brown color. One of my peeves in Indian cookbooks is when the recipe calls for sauteeing the onions until soft or translucent. When you cook them long enough, the oil starts to seep/separate out. That's a sign that the onions are ready, and that's the oil you see on the top of the finished product.

      I am not familiar with this specific recipe, but if you didn't cook the onions enough, you aren't going to have the flavor and color you should have in your finished dish.

      1. I've never run into this problem, but turmeric is usually present in my curry spice roasting mix. Turmeric is a pretty powerful coloring agent. I cook it into rice I intend to make fried tice with just to make it pop.

        1 Reply
        1. re: hrwise89

          Yes, but the coloring agent in tumeric is yellow "known as curcumin, C.I. 75300, or Natural Yellow 3" according to Wikipedia.
          That's what makes a yellow curry yellow.
          What makes red curry red are the chilies (or paprika if you're cheateing).

        2. Just to be clear the OP is talking about Thai Curries, thus the reference to David Thompson

          1 Reply
          1. re: chefj

            Thanks for clarifying. I'm not familiar with David Thompson, or this cookbook or recipe. My brain is programmed to automatically assume "Indian" when someone mentions curry.

          2. If this is the recipe in question, then the sauce will be pale (nothing much in it to make it brown), as in the accompanying photo:


            Keep in mind that food stylists are at times utterly shameless at tweaking either the recipe or the photo itself to get the look they want.