These fundamental techniques deal primarily with your liquid ingredients and your sauces. Read on to learn how to work with your fluid game players.
Infusing is one of the most useful techniques you can use to add flavor to your foods and desserts. It is very possible you have already infused flavor without realizing it. Have you ever made soup or hot tea? Those are infusions. Infusion is when you heat up a liquid and allow a flavoring agent to steep in it. The most common method of infusion is pretty much how most people make tea. Boil the liquid. The liquid can be anything! It can be water, simple syrup, juice, wine, milk/cream, and even oil/fat though in the case of oil you’re not really boiling it so much as heating it up (and you can infuse butter too, but be careful not to burn it!). After boiling, turn off the heat, and add in your flavoring agent. Herbs, spices, and tea are the most common flavoring agents for an infusion. Think outside the box though – try using a flavor you’ve never used in dessert. How would a chocolate cake with an Earl Grey icing taste? If you make an Italian buttercream you can infuse Earl Grey tea in the syrup before adding it to the egg meringue! How would chocolate ice cream taste with a red pepper infused whipped cream? Infuse whipped cream on the stove with crushed red pepper flakes (not too many!) and cool in the fridge. Whip it up as usual!
Simple syrup is a baker’s best friend. It can replace corn syrup in recipes; add moisture, sweetness, and flavor to baked cakes; it can be an infusion; it can be used to make fruit sauces and reductions; and it can be an edible glue for keeping your desserts from sliding around on plates. The casual baker can benefit from simple syrup too – it can be the sweetener for your morning beverage! It’s great for iced tea since it’s already dissolved and if it is refrigerated it can cool down your super hot beverage to the perfect sipping temperature.
Simple syrup is super easy to make. The standard simple syrup is 1 part sugar to 1 part water. So for every pound of granulated sugar, place 1 pound of water in the pot as well. I recommend adding a pinch of cream of tartar to your simple syrup as well. This will help prevent crystallization – more on this later. Bring your simple syrup to a boil on the stove and take it off the heat right away. The result is a standard simple syrup.
For a more corn syrup like simple syrup heat the syrup to around 235 degrees F. For a thick syrup just go around 220 degrees F. Temperature is like weight when it comes to sugar. Not only are you measuring the temperature of the syrup – you are also measuring the water content. The more water that boils off (or the more reduced your syrup) the higher your temperature will be and consequently the higher the amount of sugar. Water boils right around 212 degrees F. When your simple syrup is reaching temperatures higher than that, this means that there is much more sugar than water in your syrup.
212 – 218 degrees F = Water and Sugar content about 50% each
235 degrees F = Water 15% and Sugar 85%
270 degrees F = Water 10% and Sugar 90%
300 degrees F = Water 2% and Sugar 98%
320 degrees F = Water 0% and Sugar 100%
335 degrees F = Caramelization begins
Your simple syrup shouldn’t reach anything higher than 235 degrees F – otherwise it may solidify and be unusable. Higher concentrations of sugar are used mostly for sugar showpieces and for making Italian buttercream.
Crystallization is when sugar starts to harden up and form crystals. Depending on the shape of the crystals it could be resistant to being melted. When controlled it can be used to create sugar showpieces, rock candy, and pouring fondant. When it’s unexpected, it can be a frustrating annoyance. If you’ve ever tried to make caramel and all of a sudden your caramel gets hard and look like a grainy rock and it won’t melt – sorry, your sugar crystallized. Toss it out and start over. Crystallization can occur while the syrup is cooking, when you are using it, after it’s cooled, or even days later.
In a sense crystallization is inevitable. No matter what you do, if you wait long enough it will crystallize. But crystallization can be inhibited. The number one reason syrup crystallizes when you are cooking it is because there were granules of sugar along the side of the pot and they started crystallizing the sugar along the edge of the pot and a chain reaction was started. To prevent this from happening, be sure to not get any sugar along the sides of the pot. You can also wash down the sides of your pot by using a pastry brush with water in it and run it along the side of your pot. Do this when your syrup begins to boil. The water will run down the brush, run down the sides of your pot, and pull any sugar granules into the boiling syrup. My personal favorite method is to begin boiling the syrup with the pot’s lid on. This causes the steam to do the work of washing down the sides for you. As the steam hits the pots lid it forms condensation and rolls down the sides of the pot. After a few minutes of boiling with the lid on, remove the lid and continue to boil.
Cream of tartar helps prevent crystallization during cooking and after cooking of the syrup. Cream of tartar is an acid which inhibits crystallization. If you don’t have cream of tartar, vinegar can be used, and after that citrus fruit juice can be used. Keep in mind though that impurities in sugar, water, and juice can also start the crystallization process. My chefs at school and a few restaurants I worked at would place lemon slices in simple syrup after it was made to prevent crystallization over time.
Agitation can also cause crystallization. So, don’t stir your syrup while it’s cooking. If you are making caramel and you notice some spots are browning before the entire batch is, swirl the pot around. This stirs the pot without actually having to use a tool.
Remember that even if you wash down the sides of your pot, use cream of tartar, and otherwise follow these directions that your sugar may crystallize.
If you have a really thick or hard syrup stuck inside a pot – like caramel for instance – don’t waste your energy scrubbing it with a brush or sponge. Add water to the pot and boil the water. Eventually the sugar or caramel will melt into the water and you can pour all of it down the drain.
A coulis (pronounced coo-lee) is fruit sauce that is made out of a puree and is typically thinned or thickened by a simple syrup. By definition a coulis is never cooked. While a puree technically shouldn’t have simple syrup added to it, puree and coulis are commonly used interchangeably. Coulis are great for adding flavor and color to a dish quickly. Since coulis are not cooked your options for flavoring a coulis are limited – ground spices and alcohols for example. Remember that if you do use a liquid to add flavor to a coulis you will thin the coulis and change its consistency. Coulis often have their seeds strained out, but some are left in to make sure the customer knows that real fruit was used.
Common coulis: Raspberry coulis, blueberry coulis, kiwi puree
Cooked fruit sauce
Commonly called reductions, although a reduction does not have to made from fruit. A cooked fruit sauce is made from a coulis that is boiled on the stove in order to thicken it, change its flavor, and alter its color. By nature, reductions are the easiest to flavor allowing you to use almost any ingredient at your disposal: liquids added can be reduced and spices can be infused. The more surface area your sauce has while boiling, the faster it will reduce. So a wide shallow pan is best for reducing, but any pot is usable of course. Remember that you may need to add sugar to a cooked fruit sauce.
Confit are a kind of cooked fruit sauce. Confit commonly refers to a procedure used to prepare meats such as duck but liberties have been used in its strict definition to allow it to apply to dessert sauces. At its most basic definition confit means something cooked in its own sauce. To make a confit, bring a simple syrup to a boil and add a fruit. Once the fruit bursts and the colors leak out stop the cooking process and remove the pot for the stove. Another method is to boil the simple syrup to 230 degrees F, remove from stove, and add fruit (blueberries for example). The intense heat (even off the stove) should be enough to burst the fruit. The bits of fruit can be served along with the sauce, or the sauce with the coloring alone can be used – both qualify as a confit. Confit are commonly flavored used infusions or citrus zest.
Common cooked fruit sauces: Raspberry reductions, blueberry confit, passionfruit reduction
A thickened sauce is basically a pie filling used as a sauce. This method is typically called the cooked juice method. Water or fruit juice is boiled and then thickened with a thickening agent. After it is fully cooked fresh fruit is folded in. This is typically a good way to help keep delicate fruits (like berries) from losing their shape from boiling. A thickened sauce is made using a thickening agent such as flour, cornstarch, or arrowroot. A thickened fruit sauce should probably have less thickening agent added to it than if the same recipe was used to make a pie. A sauce that is overly thick will not be as pretty as a thinner sauce – though the chef’s intention will play a big role in the thickness of the sauce as wel. While thickened sauces typically refer to fruit fillings, many creams can apply such as pastry cream.
Common thickened sauces: Apple, blueberry, blackberry, pastry cream, diplomat cream
I don’t have much experience with egg-yolk-based sauces but in general it is a sauce that is made with egg yolks, sugar, butter, and flavored with citrus. The most common egg-yolk-based sauce is hollandaise sauce. Curds, like lemon curd, are also very popular egg-yolk-based sauces.
Crème Anglaise is another common egg-yolk-based sauce, one that I have a lot of experience with. Crème anglaise literally means English cream and is made from egg yolks, milk, cream, and sugar. Once the milk and cream have been boiled on the stove it is used to temper the egg yolks. It is then cooked on the stove until it reaches 178-180 degrees F. After 180 degrees F the eggs will begin to curdle, creating sweet scrambled eggs. Below 178 degrees is acceptable but it may be very thin and runny. The temperature threshold at 180 degrees F is called “nappe” or “to coat the back of a spoon” which describes the texture of crème anglaise after it has been cooked properly. It will literally be thick enough to coat the back of the spoon and if you blow on the back of the spoon the crème anglaise will push away from the center in a pattern that resembles a rose or carnation (though for sanitation reasons chefs in commercial bake shops do not do this – they just use a thermometer). Crème anglaise is often strained after cooking in case some the egg curdled during the cooking process. Since the milk and cream are boiled infusions are possible with crème anglais, however because it is thickened using eggs reductions are not possible. Crème anglaise is also commonly called vanilla sauce, cream sauce, or vanilla cream sauce. It is often served with pies, cakes, tarts, and chocolate desserts. It is also the base for French style ice creams.
Sabayon, or zabaglione, is another egg-yolk-based sauce and is the traditional combination of egg yolks, sugar and Marsala wine. It is typically made by whisking the egg yolk mixture over a water bath until it is thickened and cooked at 140 degrees for at least 3 minutes. Sabayon is very commonly served as a dessert on its own (kind of like a pudding) garnished with fresh fruits that are tossed with sugar and a liqueur. It is also possible to brulee sabayon. To brulee sabayon is the same process to brulee crème brulee – sprinkle the surface of sabayon with a thick layer of sugar and use a torch to caramelize the sugar.
This is a very broad category of sauce. In essence, anything that is flavored with chocolate is a chocolate sauce. So a crème anglaise made with chocolate is a chocolate sauce. A thin or soft ganache can also be used a chocolate sauce and is typically used the same way as piping chocolate but when the chef intends for the chocolate garnish to be eaten. Hot fudge sauce is typically made using the same procedure as ganache. A ganache is typically made by boiling milk or cream on the stove, then stirring it into chocolate chips until it is melted and uniform. Sometimes butter is added for flavor, body, and shine. Sometimes a simple syrup will be used instead of milk when the ganache is intended to be used as a sauce. Another common chocolate sauce is made using cocoa powder. The cocoa powder is mixed with water and cooked with sugar over the stove until it boils and reduces/thickens. This chocolate sauce will yield the darkest color – almost black – but is very easy to burn and turn into a charcoal brownie. Since the sauce is so dark, it is difficult to tell if the sauce is finished cooking. To prevent ruining the sauce, try deliberately undercooking it. The easiest chocolate sauce to make is ganache.
As mentioned earlier under cooked fruit sauce, reductions are made by boiling a liquid on the stove until it reduces and thickens. A reduction sauce can be made with just about anything but is most often used with fruit. Wine reductions are usually categorized as a reduction but not a cooked fruit sauce (despite being made with wine which is made from grapes). Generally sweet dessert wines are used in reductions, but any wine can be used.
Common reductions: Raspberry reduction, wine reduction
A personal favorite of mine, caramel sauce is a classic sauce made from caramelized sugar, heavy cream, and butter. To make caramel sauce, caramelize sugar in a pot with sugar and water (and a little cream of tartar to help prevent crystallization). After the desired color is reached stir in heavy cream and butter to create the sauce. More heavy cream makes a thinner sauce, while less makes a thicker sauce. Keep in mind that refrigerating a caramel sauce makes it very thick so be sure to store it in a container that can be used in the microwave or you’ll have to scoop it out using a spoon first. Caramel has a strong flavor so if you plan to add additional flavor to a caramel sauce you may need to be a little heavy on the flavor.
Preserve based sauces
Basically a sauce that is made from a jam or jelly. It is typically made by stirring simple syrup into a jam and straining if necessary. Sometimes the jam is heated to help thin it and strain it. Preserve based sauces are often called melba sauces.
Creams, like pastry cream and Bavarian cream, are typically used as a component of dessert and not to garnish a dessert, but you can use them as garnish or a dessert sauce for plating purposes. The reason they aren’t typically used for plating is because they are bulky and thick. Pastry cream, for example, can be difficult to pipe thin and delicately – but it’s not impossible. Pastry cream is also one of the few sauces that can hold its shape. Crème anglais and fruit reductions are fluid sauces so they cannot be piped into a fancy design. Bavarian cream is stabilized with gelatin so piping isn’t much of an option. Scooping it with an ice cream scoop could work, or if gelatinized enough, you may be able to cut it like jello jigglers. You can also form Bavarian cream in molds to get a variety of shapes and textures.
Chantilly cream is the official term for whipped cream although some people will argue that whipped cream can be any form of heavy cream that has been whipped up while Chantilly cream is when the whipped cream has been sweetened and/or flavored. Chantilly cream has a wide variety of uses. The most common use is as garnish or topping. Usually it is piped on top of a dessert in the form of a rosette (a tight spiral). Chantilly cream is often used to lighten desserts as well. It is often folded into heavier creams like pastry cream and Bavarian cream as well as mousse to lighten it as well as increasing the volume of the dessert.
When heavy cream is whipped the agitation creates foam and disperses protein and fat. It creates a thick foam of air and water (aka bubbles) which is stabilized by protein and/or coated by fat. Fat and protein compete to cover the bubbles so it’s unlikely that a single bubble is stabilized by both protein and fat. When you make a meringue out of egg whites, the protein is the main stabilizer because egg whites are rich in protein. However, in heavy cream the fat is the primary stabilizer. Fat is only stable at cold temperatures so in order to create a stable Chantilly cream quickly you should use a cold heavy cream – you can even chill your bowl and whisk to help keep the heavy cream cold during the whipping process.
There are two forms of whipped cream: stiff peak and soft peak. Stiff peak describes the appearance of the whipped cream as the whisk is removed from the whipped cream. It creates ridges and peaks in the cream that do not lose shape or soften – it is stiff. Stiff peak whipped cream is most often used for decorations since it will hold its shape so well. A whipped cream that is too stiff might have a jagged appearance with lots of air bubbles. Soft peak describes ridges and peaks in the cream that lose their shape slightly and soften. Soft peak whipped cream is used to for lightening creams and mousses. If you use stiff peak whipped cream to lighten mousse it will not have as smooth as a texture than if you used soft peak whipped cream. A whipped cream that is too soft will be soupy. Remember that when you whip heavy cream sometimes the cream on the bottom of the bowl is softer that the top so be sure to stir with rubber spatula to make sure the texture is even throughout. Whipped cream can also be over whipped. When it is over whipped it creates butter and once it is over whipped it is irreversible – you will have to start over again with new heavy cream.
After Chantilly cream, pastry cream is the second most popular cream to use in desserts. Pastry cream is made by boiling milk and sugar on the stove then tempering a mixture of cornstarch, eggs, sugar, and flavoring with the milk. Butter is often stirred in at the end to add flavor, body, and shine. The tempered mixture is boiled on the stove for 1-3 minutes. Pastry cream has very similar ingredients to crème anglaise but also has cornstarch (some recipes contain flour as well). Cornstarch is used in pastry cream as a thickening agent which is much stronger than flour is in terms of thickening power. The eggs in pastry cream absorb the cornstarch which allows the pastry cream to be boiled without curdling the eggs. The mixture is boiled for 1-3 minutes in order to boil out the starchy flavor of cornstarch, remove the cloudiness of the cornstarch (make it translucent), and to make sure it thickens to its fullest extent. Pastry cream should be continuously whisked while boiling to prevent burning. Pastry creams are often cooled using a ice bath which helps prevent a skin from forming on the top as well as preventing food-borne illness. A skin forms on products with milk in it because as products are boiled water is removed (just like sauces that are reduced) which concentrates the remaining components in milk such as proteins. The high concentration of proteins set up on the surface creating a skin. The most common method of preventing a skin from forming is to cover the pastry cream with plastic wrap all the way to the surface of the cream while it is cooled in the refrigerator. However, this method is not acceptable in bake shops because of high volume production. Pastry cream that is cooled in the refrigerator should be placed in a shallow pan – to increase surface area allowing more of the product to cool at the same time. In high production facilities, it would take up too much space to cool pastry cream in this manner and if a deep tub was used it could be a possible health code violation. The ice bath method is the preferred method of cooling pastry in bake shops and other high production facilities.
Diplomat Cream and Chiboust Cream
Diplomat cream is created by folding Chantilly cream into pastry cream. Typically it is a 1:1 ratio (equal parts) of both creams. Typically when making diplomat cream you want to use a very soft pastry cream. A firm pastry cream will destroy the air bubbles in the heavy cream and can create lumps in the final diplomat cream. It is best to use a pastry cream that has a small amount of cornstarch (or is made with flour) and is at room temperature. Diplomat cream is often used in any dessert that typically uses pastry cream such as cream pies, fruit tarts, éclairs, cream puffs, and napoleons.
I don’t have any experience with making chiboust cream but it is made the same way as diplomat cream but instead of whipped cream, Italian meringue is used to lighten pastry cream.
Bavarian cream is made by taking a egg-yolk base (such as crème anglaise or a pate bombe) and stirring in gelatin and folding in whipped cream. It is usually used in molds and allowed to set up. It will then be able to be unmolded in the shape of the mold. Bavarian cream was most commonly paired with jellyroll sponge cake and ladyfingers to make charlotte royal and charlotte russe – though these desserts are considered antiquated and are no longer common. Bavarian cream is gaining popularity again in the form of chilled cakes – kind of like chocolate mousse cake. Customers appreciate the delicate yet firm texture while chefs appreciate that it’s easy to make and harder to ruin than mousse.
My roommate in college introduced me to panna cotta. It is similar to Bavarian cream in that it is stabilized with gelatin. However, panna cotta does not contain eggs or whipped cream. It is made by simmering milk, heavy cream, and sugar on the stove until the sugar is dissolved then gelatin is added to the warm milk mixture. It is then poured into the container that is will be served in. This is typically a fancy glass but it can be anything. Though I haven’t tried it, you may be able to pour this into the center of a cake but I would concerned that the cake might absorb the liquid before the gelatin can set up – when I get the chance to experiment with this idea I’ll let you know how it works out. Normally in cakes Bavarian cream would be used instead of panna cotta. To flavor a panna cotta you can add fruit juice in the milk but you will have to adjust the amount of milk so the texture is not affected. You can also infuse flavor when you simmer the milk on the stove.
Mousse is one of the most popular dessert components the world around. The delicate foamy texture appeals to people everywhere. However, mousse can be very difficult to make – especially a dark or milk chocolate mousse. A traditional mousse contains egg whites, egg yolks, whipped cream, and flavorings and sweeteners. I don’t subscribe to the idea that a mousse can be made without eggs – if you don’t use eggs all you have is a flavored Chantilly cream. The egg whites in mousse are whipped into a meringue and the egg yolks can be whipped up as a pate bombe or left whole. For a delicate mousse, soft peak whipped cream and egg whites should be used. Fruit mousse and white chocolate mousse typically has gelatin to help stabilize the mousse.
Chocolate mousse is the hardest mousse to make since timing can affect the texture of the mousse. If at any time the mousse gets too cold the chocolate will set up creating chocolate chips in your mousse. Butter is sometimes added to chocolate mousse to help the chocolate stay soft as well as add body and flavor.
Mousse typically needs to be refrigerated before serving so that it can set up. When it is served on its own, it should be served it glass. Mousse can also be used as a filling for cakes (mousse cakes) or frozen. When frozen it is often called semi-freddo which is an Italian dessert.