You may have heard chefs referring to coulis. Today, coulis, pronounced koo-LEE, means a puree of vegetables or fruits, the latter of which may be sweetened with additional sugar. They may also be made from fruit jams or preserves that are strained and diluted with water, liquor, or simple syrup. Additional seasonings such as spices may be used, as well as acids like lemon juice, but they are typically kept simple to avoid muddying the flavor with too many ingredients. Common examples of coulis include tomato coulis, raspberry coulis, and roasted red pepper coulis.
The term coulis did not always refer to purees, but instead the word has evolved over time. Origination from the French verb couler, meaning “to strain,” but also “to flow;” and the adjective coleis meaning “straining, pouring, flowing.” It has similar Latin roots to the word colander.
Coulis originally referred to the juices from cooked meats. Later, it evolved to mean a thick soup made from pureed meat, game, or fish. These types of soups eventually fell out of fashion, and coulis began to refer mostly to shellfish soups that were pureed. The word cullis, in the New World, was once used to refer to a strained broth or gravy. It is the “thick liquid” meaning of the term which has survived.
Coulis are used in many different ways. Often, they are used for both plate decoration and a burst of complementary flavor, for both meat and vegetable dishes. They may also be used as soup garnishes or bases, or as the sauce of a dish. Fruit coulis, especially from berries, are used as dessert toppings. These sauces are usually very smooth and may be sieved through a chinois strainer. The use of coulis peaked in the 1980s as part of the domination of Nouvelle Cuisine. During this time, raspberry coulis, especially, became overused and chefs would use several coulis on a plate, in little puddles, squiggles, and other designs. This still happens today, of course, but usually with more restraint.
Although, as stated, a coulis may be made with vegetables (usually cooked) and fruits (usually uncooked) it more often refers to fruit purees. The term might be somewhat overused as just a fancy name for ‘sauce.’ Mango couli makes for better menu decoration than just mango puree or mango sauce. There are some debates as to what type of pureed sauce can be called a coulis and what types cannot. For example, many maintain that a cooked sauce cannot be named a coulis, while others use it more liberally. What matters, of course, is the taste, color, consistency, and the chef’s intention for using it, no matter what it is called.