Sauces Thickened with Droplets of Oil or Water: Emulsions

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

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The sauces we’ve examined so far are liquids thickened with a fine dispersion of solid materials: protein molecules, starch granules and molecules, particles of plant tissue and cell-wall molecules. A very different thickening method is to fill the water-based liquid with droplets of oil, which are much more massive and slow-moving than individual molecules of water, impede their motion, and so create a thick and creamy consistency in the mixture as a whole. Such a dispersion of one liquid in another is called an emulsion. The word comes from the Latin for “to milk out,” and referred originally to the milky fluids that can be pressed from nuts and other plant tissues. Milk, cream, and egg yolks are natural emulsions, while sauce emulsions include mayonnaise, hollandaise sauce, beurre blanc, and oil-and-vinegar salad dressings. Modern chefs have applied the basic idea to the thickening of all kinds of liquids, and often actually describe the result on the menu as an emulsion, a word that lingers on the tongue longer than sauce does.