When I was growing up, my grandparents would always host Thanksgiving, meaning it was up to them to cook the ever unattainable perfect Thanksgiving turkey. While it’s the turkey that’s undoubtedly the main event, it’s nothing without equally spectacular homemade gravy. There has to be plenty of it (we all have at least one family member that enrobes the entirety of their plate with a whole boatful, right?), it has to be lusciously smooth, and it has to be thick.
Whether it’s a chunky pesto, a velvety béchamel, or the all important Thanksgiving gravy, there’s one word you never want to hear to describe your sauce: thin. What we love most about sauces are not just their savory (or sweet) flavors, we also love their textures—the glossy, sticky, just barely pourable thickness of a chocolate sauce or the super savory, fat-imbued pan sauce thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. So what do you do when your sauce is stubborn and needs an extra hand to thicken up? Don’t fret, you’ve got options!
How to Thicken Sauces
The easiest way to thicken up savory sauces is to use cornstarch or flour. Cornstarch doesn’t have much flavor and, when its molecules are exposed to water, they soak it up and expand, making it a perfect thickener for both sweet and savory sauces—think fruit sauces or pie fillings, stir fry sauces, and gravies. What you need to do to thicken your sauce, is make a slurry. Add equal parts cornstarch (the rule of thumb is one tablespoon for every one cup of liquid you want to thicken) and cold water to a small bowl and whisk them together into a smooth paste. Add the slurry to a simmering sauce that you want to thicken, stirring really well to combine, and let it cook until it thickens up.
If you have a little extra time and a pan to spare, you can also thicken your sauce (think savory dairy-based sauces, soups and stews, or gravies) with a flour-based roux. To make a roux, melt some butter (the rule of thumb here is one tablespoon butter and flour for every one cup of liquid you want to thicken) in the pan. Add the flour and whisk constantly while it cooks. It will thicken up, then get smooth and less thick after about three minutes.
You want to cook it at least until it’s lightly golden, but you can take it much further depending on the flavor profile you’re aiming for (for instance, creole gumbo usually calls for the roux to be cooked until it’s much darker, at least 20 minutes or up to 45 minutes).
5 Other Ways to Thicken a Sauce
Cornstarch and flour aren’t the only options to have in your back pocket for thickening up a sauce. Here are five other ways you can fortify a stubbornly thin sauce.
- Reduce: Reuse, recycle, just kidding. Reducing a sauce means that you let is simmer, uncovered, so the liquids can evaporate and the sauce can thicken naturally. This also means the flavors will become more concentrated and intense. Depending on how much sauce you have and the pan you’re using, it may take awhile to let a thin sauce simmer and reduce to the consistency you want, so aim to use a wide pan that gives the sauce lots of surface area where the liquid can evaporate a bit more quickly.
- Tomato paste: Usually tomato paste is used at the beginning of a sauce to build flavor with other aromatics and provide a nice base of color, however, it can be added to late-stage sauces as well to provide a helping hand texture-wise.
- Butter: Add a pat of butter to a pan drippings and boom, you’ve got a sauce to spoon delicately over your steak. So, the same theory applies with other sauces that need a bit of richness and thickening up. Adding in a knob of butter won’t thicken up a super watery sauce, but it can build out a middling sauce that just needs a little help. Don’t add it in until the very end of the cooking process, it should be the last thing you do before serving.
- Egg yolks: This isn’t for the novice home cook, but egg yolks work wonders for thickening up cream or dairy-based sauces—especially sweet custardy sauces. They also work well in classic vinaigrettes or salad dressings to add some richness and heft. Separate your egg, removing as much of the white as possible, and add the egg yolk to a bowl. While whisking, pour a few tablespoons of the hot sauce you are trying to thicken into the egg yolk until it’s very well combined and warm to touch. Then whisk in the egg yolk mixture to the full pot of sauce to thicken it up.
- Add something starchy and puréed: To thicken up a soup, stew, or sauce, adding some puréed vegetables (think potatoes, squash, celery root, or even cauliflower) or legumes (think chickpeas, beans, or lentils) is a good tip. Pasta e ceci is a classic recipe that benefits from this method, making use of the chickpeas that are already cooked into the dish, but you could add simple roasted and puréed veg or legumes that don’t already feature into a dish for added texture. Cauliflower macaroni and “cheese” or “Alfredo” are two examples of recipes that have gotten super popular and use this method to create thick sauces.