Gnocchi light as clouds, sauces so smooth they’re like velvet, macarons that dissolve to nothing in your mouth, pates and mousses as fine as Irish butter, a rain of Parmesan like fine dust. Achieving such kitchen refinement doesn’t take a closetful of expensive gadgets -- nor a wave of Harry Potter’s wand -- just a single old-fashioned tool.
It’s called a tamis, or drum sieve, and it looks like a cross between an ordinary strainer and your rock-star son’s snare drum. It dates to around the Middle Ages, and it’s been used in professional kitchens pretty much since.
“It’s one of the most important tools in our kitchen,” says chef Thomas Keller of the French Laundry, “because it’s what gives food that sense of refinement. In our restaurant it’s in use constantly.” Keller says it’s the key to dishes as diverse as English pea soup, fish mousse and mashed potatoes; he even uses his as a steamer.
It couldn’t be easier to use. Just place the tamis (rhymes with “whammy”) over a bowl, then spoon whatever you want to sieve onto the center of the fine metal mesh and pull the food through, using a plastic bowl scraper. Julia Child recommended pushing ingredients through using a wooden pestle in 1961; chefs nowadays go the carefree flexi-plastic route.
Boiled potatoes or blanched English peas might take a few minutes to press through, while a coulis of fresh blackberries only needs a few swipes.
Sifting is even easier: Flour or powdered sugar might take a little pressure if there are lumps, but often a few taps on the tamis’ side is all it takes to translate coarse flours into fine dust.
The tamis’ genius is in its design. Because it’s flat, you can take advantage of the sweep of the surface, and apply downward pressure by pulling across, without much effort.
Because of this, a tamis can do what neither a conventional strainer nor a chinois (a china cap, or conical strainer) can easily achieve: It can strain quickly and very finely. It’s like a study in applied plane geometry. (Imagine Euclid in the kitchen, studying a bowlful of potatoes.)
“With a chinois you’re pushing down through a tip,” says Keller. “The tamis is much broader -- and it’s even.” Keller’s tamis are large, 18 inches in diameter. “You have so much more area to work with.”
For those of us without a Michelin-starred restaurant, a smaller tamis will do just fine: They come in a wide variety of sizes, and you can find them with metal or wood sides.
Besides sifting and straining, a tamis is also great for purifying: it removes the tiny veins and impurities from foie gras, turning it into silky pates and terrines. For a classic foie gras torchon, many chefs use a tamis to sieve the liver before rolling it tightly in cheesecloth and poaching it. Craig Strong, chef at Pasadena’s Ritz-Carlton, Huntington Hotel & Spa, makes his torchon this way, ditto his foie gras mousse. “Anything that you want to be sure is smooth,” he says.
Strong also uses it for an unusual, amazingly smooth eggplant marmalade, “to remove all those seeds.” And when he makes a Bavarian cream, he first passes cooled pastry cream through a tamis to lighten it up before folding it into whipped cream.
A tamis can rice a cooked potato more finely than any ricer or food mill -- it was key to making French chef Joel Robuchon’s famous potato puree (that and a frightening amount of butter). And if you’ve ever tried mashing raspberries or straining a bulky soup through a strainer -- concave, insecurely hooked, often too small -- you’ll find the beautiful flat expanse of a tamis a happy revelation.
“Anyone who has ever spent any time in the kitchen with me has been taught how to use a tamis,” says Michael Cimarusti, chef and owner of Providence restaurant. “There is no better tool for fining purees.” Cimarusti says all of Providence’s fruit and vegetable purees are passed through a tamis, as is grated Parmesan cheese. Grated cheese?
“Try it yourself,” Cimarusti says. “Make a simple pasta and toss it with cheese grated the normal way. Then make the same pasta and toss it with the cheese that has been passed through a tamis. The latter will have a stronger flavor of the Parmesan and you will have used less cheese. Also, when finishing risotto, cheese that has been passed through a tamis melts into the rice much more evenly.”
That might be good sprinkled over the corn ravioli with brown butter truffle sauce Josiah Citrin makes at Melisse; the sweet corn filling owes its smoothness to a trip through, well, you guessed it.
A tamis is also one of the secrets to making beautiful quenelles -- light-as-air fish dumplings -- as well as a classic shrimp bisque.
Though as rare on today’s menus as quenelles, velvety shrimp or lobster bisque is achieved by flambeing, then caramelizing the shells before cooking them with the other ingredients. Next the shells are finely ground up with the rest of the bisque before being pressed through a tamis. The shells impart a glorious pink color as well as a depth of flavor that you simply can’t achieve otherwise -- but you don’t want them in your soup. A tamis is fine enough to strain them out.
Chef’s best friend
At Spago, pastry chef Sherry Yard uses hers to make the lightest macarons. She first pulses almond flour and powdered sugar in a food processor, then sifts it through the tamis. “This ensures the lightest, finest flour,” says Yard, who also uses the tool when she makes the fillings for Austrian dumplings and strudels, using soft cheeses like farmer’s cheese, quark and goat cheese. “We flip the tamis upside down, put a bowl underneath, and press the cheese directly into the bowl,” Yard says. It’s the difference between a grainy texture and one fine as silk.
How does Water Grill chef David LeFevre make those incredibly fine straw-shaped raspberry tuiles he and pastry chef John Park pair with a red velvet cake? After breaking up house-made hard candy in a food processor, they sift it through a tamis; the resulting fine powder is baked, melting together into the tuile. It’s the key, LeFevre says, to making them so thin.
A quick press through the mesh is also the secret to making light, pillowy potato gnocchi. What sets cloudlike Italian dumplings apart from leaden ones is the texture of the dough, which should be as light and airy as possible. Enter the tamis.
If you’ve got a couple of pints of blackberries burning a hole in your fridge, you can make a perfectly smooth seedless coulis. Just simmer them with some sugar and a little grated lemon zest, then push the results through a tamis. Try this with a chinois or one of those little strainers casually hooked over the top of a bowl, and odds are your kitchen -- and your shirt -- will soon look like a Jackson Pollock painting.