HOME > Chowhound > General Topics >


Interesting thickening agents

  • l

I'm the kind of cook who wings it a lot, mostly based on experience, and I'm really interested in understanding the properties of ingredients.

You can almost categorize cuisines by the thickening agents they use. I've got a mental list of thickening agent that work, though I usually rely on the standards:

White flour-butter roux for French dishes
Cornstarch for Asian dishes
Beurre manee for stews

Then there are the things for particular dishes:
Flour-oil brown roux for gumbo
Cooked, pureed rice for bisque
Butter for rich sauces

Here are some that are open for discussion:

Coleman's Dry Mustard--I've found this to be an amazing thickener. Does anyone use it as such and for what?

Stale bread--Thinking of Italian soups and English bread sauce. Anyone have any novel uses?

Eggs--Not very adventurous here, beyond blanquette de veau, English baked puddings, and Hollandaise. Ideas?

Potato starch--open to ideas on this.

Nonfat dry milk--seems like it would work for something?


Potato flakes

Tomato paste--Is it just my imagination, or does it thicken beyond the obvious original pastiness?

Peanut butter--Now this definitely thinkings exponentially from its original pastiness.

Chickpea flour -- applications as a thickener?

Any others, and what do you do with them? I there any way to get the shiny gelatinous quality of a real demi-glace by using another ingredient?

I suspect there's a wealth of information to plunder here.

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. What about rice starch? How does it differ from corn starch, and when is it used?

    1 Reply
    1. re: Millicent

      Good question. I think it's the same as rice flour. Used in Asian desserts? Sort of thing I would buy and put in the cabinet for a decade or so.

    2. Arrowroot for soups and sauces

      1 Reply
      1. re: Alan408

        And, tapioca. Soups and desserts.

      2. Liver—think of giblet gravy.

        Ground nuts and seeds. Frequently used in Mexican cooking, and I’m sure elsewhere but nothing comes immediately to mind. West African, I’m pretty sure (besides peanuts).

        I think bread is used in every bread-baking cuisine.

        Leeks (think of soup). Okra, well cooked.

        Coconut cream.

        Gelatin in various forms (a calf’s foot in the stew).

        2 Replies
        1. re: Aromatherapy

          Oh, okra! Speaking of which, I read somewhere (maybe here on CH) that file powder is only a thickening agent (not a flavoring agent) and you use okra OR file but not both. Any gumbo experts out there?

          1. re: lucia

            Is there any other use for file powder?

        2. Interesting question. I think you could break down the ones you have mentioned into starchy or gelatinous.

          Flour is the thickening ingredient for basic sauces and gravies in homestyle american cooking as I learnt from my mother/joy of cooking school.
          Either browned in a roux or just blended first with liquid and then added.
          Cornstarch or Arrowroot for fruit pies, sauces, puddings, asian sauces.
          Both of these also act as a coating and thickening ingredient when used to coat meats before searing and braising.
          Potatoes in chowders, stews. And rice in these same uses.

          Gelatious: Gelatin, agar agar and xanthan gum. Okra.

          You mention mustard, which I think of as an emusifier. Also, I think the thickening effect of tomato paste is really reconstituting to tomato sauce, it is not a thickener in my mind.

          Some thickeners, eggs, peanuts, break easily, is it the protein? which restricts how much more cooking you can do after they have been added. And File should never be reheated too....

          And some dishes are thickened by more than one ingredient, ie pot roast, the gelatin from the bones, the starch from the browning flour, the potaoes or root vegies added...

          3 Replies
          1. re: ciaolette
            The new wireless snackish

            Dry mustard is indeed an emulsifier rather than a thickener. Which is why it, or the prepared form, is a must in keeping your vinaigrette from separating.

            1. re: The new wireless snackish

              I use the prepared Dijon as an emulsifier, but the dried stuff seems to act like cornstarch in water, thickening up when it cooks. Also, like cornstarch, I'm not sure it dissolves well enough to use in vinaigrette.

              1. re: lucia

                The dry powder works well for me, I always use a bit when making a balsamic/olive oil/shallots/ vinnegrette. But a disclaimer, powdered mustard seems to loose its flavor very quickly, and I tend to throw a bottle out before I have used it all.

          2. Lucia,

            You mention potato flakes. Here is an interesting technique I've used for almost twenty years as a replacement for roux.

            Lets say you're stewing down tomatoes with celery, onion, leek, carrot, etc...for a tomato soup, or even asparagus, onion, garlic, celery, leek, etc...for a cream of asparagus soup. Include peeled and rough cut russet potatoes with the vegetables when you add your stock. When you go to puree the soup base, the potato serves as a thickener rather than adding a starchy roux.

            And for yellow tomato sauce or soup, use some sweet potato, which will amplify the color, as well as thicken.

            Evil Ronnie

            1. Water Chestnut starch. Has a mild but unique flavor. Use anywhere you would use a starch or arrowroot.

              1. Adding unsweetened chocolate thickens desserts (and chili and mole sauce, too). Masa Harina. Grated potatoes. Don't know any way to get a realy glazy sauce other than reducing.

                1. Definitely minute tapioca for desserts (fruit pies). I grind it in a coffee grinder first, usually mix in a little cornstarch too. Get the best of both worlds.

                  1. A little bit of instant mashed potato is good for thickening milk-based soups like corn chowder, fish and clam chowders, etc..A Spanish friend tells me she thickens gazpacho with bread. I make a non-bread version so don't know. Also, aren't ground almonds used as thickener in some Spanish cooking? Seems as if I've read that somewhere. Just cooking potatoes, dried beans, or pasta in soup will thicken it. Thanks for raising an interesting and unsual question.

                    1. Hi,

                      Some alternative thickeners, which I have used but not necessarily often:

                      1. St. Vincent Arrowroot a.k.a. Arrowroot - quick but doesn't tolerate reheating very well. The first time I ever heard about it was when Carol Lawrence was on the Don Ho Show in the late 1970's.
                      2. I grind rice in my coffee grinder to clean it out between spice grindings. I will save the ground rice and throw it into a soup or whatever to thicken things up.
                      3. Chickpea Flour, there is an Italian bakery near my house where the owner makes a polenta from chickpea flour. She then fries it and squeezes lemon on it. I was there last weekend inquiring about it, she promised to make a batch if I call in advance. No cost, we will just share it together for lunch!
                      4. Jacques Pepin in one of the Claudine episodes used grits to thicken a soup.
                      5. Tomato paste - that is an ingrediant I have given up on. It is too strong tasting as is. It usually has a burnt taste, just don't think I need it in my life. Also use in inconvenient quantities, so unless I freeze it in ice cubes or it cultures fungi in the refrigerator.
                      6. Cream of wheat could be used in the same fashion as grits.


                      3 Replies
                      1. re: CAthy2

                        I'm jealous about the chickpea fries... Nam nam... But on the issue of tomato paste, I just wanted to say that I'm not wildly fond of the stuff myself, use it only rarely, but when I do, it's presence is usually for the dual purposes of thickening power and flavour. But in using it, I never throw it into a wet preparation (ragù, stew etc.) raw but, following the practice of my grandmother, always fry it gently in the olive oil at the beginning of the whole process, until it caramelises a bit. If fried, it loses that unpleasant side to its flavour, I think, and develops a nice sweet element that makes the dark tomato element nicer. Maybe you've tried the frying method and still don't like it; I'd understand that. As I said, I only use it once in a while and never use it in a basic tomato sauce (which seems to be done a lot in this country).

                        By the way, along the very lines you discuss, semolina flour is used as a thickening agent (and gruel) in various parts of the Mediterranean... To the horror of my non-Italian friends as a kid, we used to eat 'farina' every once in a while as a savoury dish...

                        P.S.: Could you mention the name and location of your Italian bakery on the Chicago board?

                        1. re: CAthy2

                          That polenta sounds great!

                          About tomato paste, in England its sold in squeezy tin tubes, which are great if using just a little bit. I always wind up throwing some of a can away.

                          1. re: lucia

                            I don't bother to freeze leftover tomato paste in ice cube trays; I just stick the opened can in the freezer (with the surface of the tomato paste covered with a layer of plastic wrap). When it's frozen, you can open the other end with a can opener and use the lid to push out what you need.

                        2. Here are the ones that I commonly use:

                          Flour- When combining with fat or oil in the initial preparation of a gravy or sauce.

                          Wondra Flour - Gravy and sauces made simply by the addition of the flour to thicken liquid. It generally dissolves evenly and thickens without lumping.

                          Corn Starch - I use it chiefly for thickening chili.

                          Guar Gum - Indispensible as a thickener/ emulsifier for oil & vinegar based salad dressings, marinades and many other uses. Guar Gum is a particularly useful as a thickener where no cooking is involved because it dissolves and works as a thickening agent without applying heat. A little goes a long way.

                          Tapioca starch - The best thickener for fruit pies and fillings and some types of puddings.

                          6 Replies
                          1. re: Sam D.

                            Tapioca starch:

                            I just bought some from an asian market - I tried about a teaspoon, cold, stirred into a cup of beef stock, chili, and prepared balck bean chili sauce for a beef and broccoli stir fry. I didn't know how to use it really, so I just emulated using cornstarch. The sauce thickened a bit, but it wasn't as stiff as if using cornstarch. Which, in a way, was nice.

                            Was this appropriate? I'm unfamiliar with tapioca starch, but I understand that it's essential in some asian cuisines. Should it be stirred in cold with liquid, then heated?

                            1. re: rudeboy

                              "Should it be stirred in cold with liquid, then heated?"

                              If that worked then it's definitely appropriate! That's actually the same thing I've done when I've used tapioca starch to thicken puddings. Like I mentioned, I mainly use it for fruit pies and fillings. For that I simply add and mix the powder into them before they are cooked. I haven't used tapioca starch for thickening sauces but your experience indicates that it works fine for that purpose also.

                            2. re: Sam D.

                              I didn't know about Wondra. Thanks.

                              Also, where do you get guar gum, and doesn't it add a flavor? I've seen is as an ingredient in processed foods, but I didn't know people cooked with it.

                              1. re: lucia

                                Is it like Xanthan Gum? I bought some to try when making lower fat salad dressings, but never really liked the results.

                                1. re: ciaolette

                                  I have never used Xanthan gum but I'm guessing that it is similar to guar gum.

                                  I also tried making no-fat salad dressings, using guar gum as a thickener, and I didn't like the result either. IMO it takes at least a certain amount of oil to make most types of salad dressings palatable.

                                2. re: lucia

                                  Guar gum can be purchased at health food stores. It is an off-white powder made from the crushed seeds of a plant that is native to India and Pakistan.

                                  Until just now I never thought to taste it alone but I just did. It has almost no detectable flavor but it did leave a gummy coating inside my mouth so I wouldn't recommend this kind of taste test. As far as using it in cooking, it doesn't seem to add any flavor at all. Like I mentioned, a little goes a long way. I just made 24 oz. of vinaigrette salad dressing and added only about half a teaspoon of guar gum to obtain the right stability and viscosity.

                              2. I've had good luck with tomato paste--although I fully accept that what's probably happening is it's being reconstituted as tomato sauce. I use it as a base for a pork stew. Other ingredients include fresh orange peel, coriander, cinnamon, nutmeg salt and pepper. It doesn't seem to do anything for the first 40 mins, just watered down tomato paste with some spices, but then it somehow comes together into a rich sauce.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: drdawn

                                  It could be the cinnamon. There was no mention in this entire discussion, but boiling powdered cinnamon (cassia) will create a thick gel, not unlike what a hagfish does to water (unappetizing I know, but pretty amazing to watch, find on youtube). Adding a sprinkle in your sauce was likely what changed the texture and made it rich and saucy.

                                2. Regarding Arrowroot:

                                  Graham Kerr was always big on using it as a thickener.

                                  Always mix it with COLD liquid before adding to a hot liquid. It has the advantage of setting up fairly quickly and at lower temperature than flour or cornstarch. You needn't cook the "raw" taste out of it; indeed, if you overheat it, it has a tendency to break down, much like cornstarch does. You also need less of it than you do flour or cornstarch. And whereas flour gives an opaque result & cornstarch a translucent one, arrowroot will give a clearer endproduct without changing the color.

                                  ONE WARNING: When added to a liquid than contains dairy (milk, cream, sour cream), it binds oddly to the protein in the dairy & can result in an unpleasant "ropey" texture. If possible, thicken the sauce/soup/whatever FIRST with the arrowroot, and THEN add the dairy to loosen it. For some reason, that seems to prevent the glueiness.

                                  1. Blood can also be used. It is, for example, the key element in thickening the sauce for Pressed Duck. Most Hare dishes call for the blood to be used in the sauce, although the liver can be substituted.
                                    Blood Sausage works very well as a thickening agent, I have made a very tasty dish of Chickpeas in a Blood Sausage sauce.

                                    1. Some people have mentioned using tapioca for desserts, but I use it in slo cooked stews. Makes a nice gravy.

                                      1. Chickpea flour is used as a thickener in some South Asian dishes. It is used in some nihari recipes. There is also a dish called Sindhi karhi or besan ki karhi, which contains a roux of chickpea flour cooked in oil and then water is added and this is like a soup-curry base of this dish.