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How To Thicken Cream Sauce ⋆ Here Is What You Need To Do ⋆

It’s almost dinner time, and while you are getting the pasta ready, you realize your cream sauce turned out thin and runny. What do you do now? Is it salvageable, and if so, how do you thicken it? Don’t fret; here is all you need to do.

So, how do you thicken cream sauce? The easiest method to thicken cream sauce is by reduction – simmering the sauce over a gentle heat with regular stirring without burning. You can also use other pantry staples like flour, butter, or thickening agents such as corn starch, tapioca starch, or even pureed vegetables. 

Sometimes, there are certain factors that get in the way, and your sauce doesn’t come out as expected despite being careful.

As you see above, there are many ways you can use to get that creamy and thick yet pouring consistency. A good cream sauce will cling to the foods perfectly. 

The method you decide depends upon the time and the availability of ingredients at hand, and your personal preferences.

So, choosing the appropriate method for thickening can make or break the deal for that perfect finger-licking cream sauce.

Are you ready to delve deeper into how these different options can work for you? Before that, we need to understand why your cream sauce is thin and flowy, to begin with? Besides, we don’t want this to become a regular occurrence!

Why Is My Cream Sauce Thin?

Cream sauce can turn out thin when the ratio of the flour and the butter for the roux is incorrect, or the roux is not cooked for the correct length of time. If a large quantity of milk is used, it can result in too thin a sauce. Not cooking the mixture long enough after adding milk can give you a runny sauce as well.

The correct ratio of flour to butter is the critical step and can ruin the sauce.

Guesstimating can leave you with too thin a sauce. You must follow the recipe to the ‘T.’

Roux is slightly tricky to cook. Once it’s reached the brown stage, it loses some of its thickening power.

For the cream sauce, you must pay close attention to the cooking time.

The roux needs to be cooked until it appears dry and smells nutty but still appears ‘white.’ It should not have a raw flavor.

Do not add all the milk at once.

Pour about a quarter of the quantity of the warm milk and whisk vigorously to loosen the roux up and knock out any lumps before slowly adding the remaining milk.

This will give you a sauce that is uniform and thick.

The cream sauce needs to be cooked longer than just one simmer and continuously whisked till it reaches its optimal thickness.

At this stage, the sauce must be able to coat the spoon.

How Thick Does A Cream Sauce Need To Be?

Cream sauce needs to be smooth, silky, glossy, and moderately thick enough to coat the back of your spoon and palette. 

Well, how do you know it’s thick enough? You can perform this simple spoon test to check.

If the sauce coats the back of your spoon, you can be assured that the sauce will coat other ingredients too.

Testing with a spoon is a good way to test the sauce because the temperature of the spoon will cool the sauce a little, giving a good impression of how thick the sauce will be once it leaves the hot pan and cools to the temperature it will ultimately be served at.

I suggest you perform this spoon test, especially if you are a beginner and not just by eye bawling it.

If the sauce turns out lumpy, it may be fixed by straining.

Lumpy sauce may also be processed in a blender; however, this changes the thickness and texture.

What Can You Use To Thicken Cream Sauce?

If your cream sauce is too thin, you can thicken it by simmering further to reduce the liquid or by using a thickening agent – like starch, protein, fats or pureed vegetables, etc.

Thickening a cream sauce is easy and can prevent you from tossing a thin, runny product in the garbage.

How To Thicken Cream Sauce – All Of The Options

Below, we will describe for you a few ways that you can use to thicken cream sauce, and each of these methods has its own pros and cons. You need to use a method that best suits your needs.

Thickening By Reducing

Reducing the liquid is an excellent way to thicken sauce naturally without adding any thickening agents, like cornstarch or flour.

Reduction also intensifies the flavors when the liquid evaporates.

This process is slow and takes time so if you are in a rush, reduce only the desired quantity that you need to use.

The steps are:

  1. Simmering– By simmering under low heat, the liquid in the sauce evaporates, thereby thickening it. Ensure that the sauce stays at a low heat as it simmers.
  2. Heating – The sauce should stay just below the boiling point, and you must avoid boiling it. High temperatures can curdle/ break the sauce. If it starts to boil, reduce the heat, or turn it off once it reaches the desired consistency. Also, the high heat can result in burning of the sauce.
  3. Stirring – Continually stir the cream sauce with a wooden spoon/whisk as it reduces at regular intervals until it thickens. Monitor the sauce closely as it can burn easily.
  4. Testing the thickness -The time needed for the cream sauce to thicken is determined by the sauce and one’s preferences. The sauce usually takes 10 to 30 minutes to thicken, depending on the quantity.

You can stop reducing the sauce when you are happy with the consistency. The sauce will thicken more upon cooling.

Thickening With Flour

All-purpose flour is the most readily available thickener in most kitchens.

You can simply add a little water directly to the flour to make a slurry (2 tbsp flour to 1 cup of water). Whisk the slurry and pour into the saucepot and simmer it for a few minutes, or until the sauce has thickened and the taste of flour is cooked out.

A superior option, in my opinion, is to make a roux (a mixture of equal parts of butter and all-purpose flour) to thicken your sauce.

This can be prepared in the following way:

  1. Heat butter in a pan over low heat and add an equal amount of flour.
  2. Cook the roux, constantly whisking till it smells nutty. If it starts to brown, reduce the heat.
  3. Add a tablespoonful of roux to the simmering sauce while stirring constantly.
  4. As the sauce reduces, frequently stir to prevent clumps. Once it reaches the desired consistency, simmer it on low heat.

In this method, the flour is cooked in the ‘roux making process’ and does not give a ‘raw floury’ taste.

Thickening With Starch

You can use any starch of your choice – cornstarch, potato starch, tapioca starch, etc. These are gluten-free alternatives to thickening with flour.

Cornstarch is an easy ingredient usually found in homes.

Cornstarch is fine, flavorless, and provides a light sheen to the sauce. If using, do not add it directly to the hot liquid as it will clump together.

Cornstarch, when made into a slurry, eliminates clumping. The steps are described under.

  1. Whisk equal parts cornstarch and liquid (cold water or milk) in a bowl to make a slurry.
  2. Add the mixture into your sauce while stirring.
  3. Let the cream sauce simmer with continuous stirring under low heat to eliminate the starchy taste.

When using cornstarch in a sauce, serve as soon as it finishes cooking, as the sauce may gelatinize after cooling to room temperature.

You will notice that starches can also mask flavors, especially salt, so you would need to adjust your salt and seasoning when you use starches.

Thickening With Butter

You can just add a little butter, but thickening is not great. But if you use some flour along with butter, you can achieve good results. This is how you can use butter:

  1. Take equal parts of cold butter and flour. Do not use margarine.
  2. Use a fork to mash the butter-flour mixture until it becomes a thick paste or soft dough-like.
  3. Measure a tablespoon of kneaded butter and roll into small balls using hands.
  4. Use the paste to roll in a small ball and drop it into the sauce.
  5. Drop these balls in the sauce.
  6. Simmer while stirring continually. Once the desired thickness is reached, remove the pan from the heat.

Thickening With Pureed Vegetables

Pureed starchy vegetables like potato, cauliflower, and winter squash are excellent thickening agents if you have them readily available. They will also enhance the nutritive value of the sauce. You can see the steps below:

  1. Boil the vegetable in a pan. Let them cool.
  2. Puree the vegetable into a food processor and blend until smooth
  3. Stir the puree in the sauce, and the sauce will thicken instantly.

Why May A Cream Sauce Not Thicken?

Cream sauce will not thicken if the ratio of ingredients is off (too much butter to flour) and the roux is not cooked for the correct length of time. The sauce will also not thicken if too many ingredients are used one time; you also need to continuously stir the mixture for the flour to work and homogenize with the milk.

Flour varies in starch, gluten, and moisture content based on its region, the growing season, and harvesting climate. 

Avoid using high protein flours to make the roux as more starch and less protein are desirable for a roux.

The age of the flour affects the flours’ ability to absorb and swell.

The heat and the amount of cooking time a roux is cooked for affects its thickening ability. Other factors that affect the thickening ability include salts, sugars, and acids.

Extremely high temperatures of the milk or the roux result in the sauce lumping.

To avoid this problem, have one ingredient cooler than the other one.

Allow the roux to cook for sufficient time to achieve its full thickening potential. Be patient and allow

What Do You Do If Your Cream Sauce Isn’t Thickening?

If the cream sauce isn’t thickening, do not panic and check if you measured your ingredients correctly and followed the steps of the recipe properly. Also, if the cooking time and temperatures are accurately followed.

The ratio of butter to flour is key here for texture and consistency.

Also, make sure the temperature at which the milk is poured, and the sauce is cooked is right.

The cooking times need to be considered as well.

Your cream sauce might not turn out perfect on the first go.

But as you keep trying and with experience, you can master it quickly.

Finally

So, now you know how to get that perfect thickness for your cream sauce.

While cream sauce is easy to whip up, it can be a bit tricky and come out thin.

The good news is that the cream sauce is stable, and you can easily remedy it if it goes runny!

Some methods may work better for you than others, but you may have to experiment a little and see what you might have in your house. 

Also, when adding any ingredients, remember less is more.

Whichever method you choose, start slowly, and proceed with caution to get your rich and flavorful cream sauce.

Want to learn how to thicken any type of sauce? Then check out my definitive guide: