Q: What does it mean when a recipe says a sauce could “break”?
A: It means a cook’s hopes have been shattered. Actually, no, that’s a short way of saying that a sauce has curdled, or has lost the ability to be emulsified.
To make most sauces, you create a thick, smooth texture by suspending molecules of starch and fat in a liquid, creating an emulsification. That’s what you’re doing when you cook flour in fat to make a roux and then whisk in hot stock, or when you whisk melted butter into egg yolks to make hollandaise.
If the starch, fat and liquid separate, we say the sauce has broken: Something has interrupted the emulsification. The most common reason is overheating the sauce or trying to keep it warm too long. Sauces thickened with cornstarch, such as Asian stir-fry sauces, are particularly prone to breaking if you overheat them.
Sometimes you can pull a sauce together again. You can whisk in more melted butter or a little hot water to fix a broken hollandaise, for example.
Q: I am vegan and use coconut, soy and almond milk and yogurt to substitute for animal-based products. I read about an additive, carrageenan, that can cause stomach problems. What is it and should it be avoided?
A: Carrageenan comes from a red seaweed or algae that is found near Ireland. The seaweed has been used for hundreds of years to make a sort of pudding, and an extract made from it is now a common food additive. It’s used to give products a thick, creamy texture, so it’s popular in organic products to replace gelatin, which is animal-based.
There is concern about its safety, because some studies indicate that it may cause intestinal inflammation and could be associated with tumors. Note the use of the words “may” and “could be.” The findings aren’t definitive.
The Food & Drug Administration and the U.S. National Organic Standards Board allow carrageenan as a food additive, although the organic board doesn’t allow it in organic infant formula. The World Health Organization also concluded it’s safe but recommends not using it in formula.
Some companies are removing it, including Stonyfield and Organic Valley; others, including Silk and Horizon, continue to use it. Should you avoid it? It’s hard to say. Some sources suggest it’s better to consume a little carrageenan if that allows you to continue to use dairy substitutes like soy milk because the known advantage outweighs the unknown risk.