Nothing says comfort food like cream sauces

Rich and creamy scalloped potatoes. BY JACK CLEMONS
November 7, 2011

There’s nothing quite as luxurious as a cream sauce. I love the rich texture and flavor ladled over pasta or baked with vegetables. However, there are a few drawbacks to this indulgence, most notably the fat and calories. Over the years, I’ve tried various substitutions to reduce the less desirable features of cream sauces while keeping their signature mouth feel. As you may imagine, some attempts were not successful.

Before I confess my failures, a few definitions might be helpful. Cream is simply the fatty component of non-homogenized milk. For those of us old enough to remember home delivery of fresh milk (or collecting it directly from the cow) cream is the thick yellowish layer that would rise to the top. Modern milk production includes a step that evenly distributes the fat molecules throughout the liquid so they stay in suspension (or, as in the case of skim milk, removes them altogether).

There are a variety of types of cream, defined by their percentage of butterfat (see table). Half and half is a mixture of heavy cream thinned with whole milk, typically served with coffee. Light cream has a comparable amount of fat and is also served as a coffee lightener. Whipping cream is almost one-third fat and is often formulated with additives to help stabilize and thicken the whipped result. Heavy cream (my favorite) is highest in fat, flavor and utility. It will almost double in volume when whipped and is least likely to curdle when used in cooking.

By now you’ve likely guessed the problem I’ve had when cooking with cream: the hideous mess of a curdled sauce. In my efforts to make healthier choices, I set myself up for disaster at the stove. Any cream (or sour cream) with less than thirty-five percent fat will curdle if it reaches the boiling point. In other words, you may save some calories but the sauce will not be appetizing. Heavy cream, however will not only stay intact, but thicken further as it is heated, leading to a lovely sauce.

Another problem I’ve caused myself is forgetting about the effect of acidic ingredients, which will also sabotage a sauce. Have you ever wondered why recipes for cream of tomato soup call for a pinch of baking soda? This is to neutralize the acidity from the tomatoes and keep the soup creamy. This same reasoning dictates reducing the wine you’ve added to a pan sauce, before stirring in the cream.

The other protection for your cream sauce is to make sure flour is among the ingredients. When Mate and Kathleen McCain shared their recipe for his mother’s beef stroganoff, I was surprised to see it went into the oven after adding sour cream to the mixture.

Almost every time I’ve made stroganoff, no matter how gently I heated the sour cream, the sauce would invariably curdle. When I tried the McCains’ version, the sauce was lush and creamy – because the meat had been dredged in flour. This is one of the easiest and tastiest ways to make stroganoff; no wonder it’s Mate’s favorite dish.

What if you forget the guidelines and your sauce “breaks”? Can you save it? Yes, all you need is heavy cream. Pour one-half cup of heavy cream into a saucepan and reduce it until it’s about a third of the original volume. While whisking vigorously, slowly pour in the curdled sauce and watch the mixture regain a silky consistency.

Now that you appreciate the virtues of full-fat heavy cream, I’ll leave you with a few recipes you may want to try, including the surprising stroganoff and the decadent scalloped potatoes in the photo.

McCain’s Beef Stroganoff
1 1/2 lbs sirloin steak
3/4 lb sliced mushrooms
3 T butter; divided
1/4 C flour
1 C beef broth
1 T paprika
2 C sour cream*

Preheat oven to 350 F. Cut the meat into strips, about one-half inch wide, then slice on an on angle into chunks. Season with salt and pepper; set aside. Melt 1 T butter in a cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Sauté mushrooms until they release their liquid, about 5 to 8 minutes; set aside. Measure flour into a paper or plastic bag and add meat. Shake meat in flour until coated. Melt remaining 2 T butter in the same skillet; add meat and sauté until lightly browned. Remove meat from skillet with a slotted spoon and set aside. Over low heat in the same skillet, combine broth, sour cream and paprika; do not boil. When heated, return the mushrooms and meat to the pan. Bake for 30 minutes and serve over rice or egg noodles. Yield: 4 servings. *Note, use full fat sour cream, do not use “light” varieties.

Scalloped Potatoes
6 C sliced potatoes
3 T butter
3 T flour
2 C milk
1 C heavy cream
1 t salt
1/2 t white pepper
1 C grated Gruyere cheese

Preheat oven to 375 F. Coat the inside of a 12x8-inch baking dish with nonstick cooking spray; set aside.

Peel and thinly slice the potatoes into a colander set in a pot of cold water; keep slices submerged to prevent browning. Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium-low heat. Stir in the flour and cook until smooth.

Slowly pour in the milk and cream, whisking constantly until the mixture is smooth and without lumps. Add the potatoes, salt and pepper; bring to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes. Transfer the mixture to prepared baking dish and sprinkle with cheese. Bake until starting to brown, about 30 minutes. Yield: 6 servings.

Tomato Cream Sauce
1 diced onion
3 minced garlic cloves
1 T butter
1 T olive oil
2 15-oz cans tomato sauce
1 t sugar
salt & pepper, to taste
1 C heavy cream
basil, for garnish

In a heavy saucepan, heat the butter and olive oil over medium low. Stir in the onion and garlic; sauté until softened, about 3 minutes. Stir in tomato sauce; add sugar, salt and pepper. Simmer over low heat for about 25 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and whisk in cream. Correct seasonings and garnish with basil. Yield: sauce for one pound of cooked pasta.


Name Butterfat Description
Half & Half Light 10 to 18 % Mixture of 1/2 heavy cream and 1/2 whole milk
Light cream 15 to 20 % Also called single cream; will not whip
Whipping cream 30 to 36 % Sufficient butterfat to whip, may have additives
Heavy cream 36 to 40 % Doubles when whipped; ideal for sauces


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