Food & Drink

Types of Food Thickening Agents

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Creating a hearty, full-bodied winter soup or plating the perfect slice of blueberry pie requires the same secret ingredient: starch. Starches are available in many different forms, prepared using different cooking techniques, and certain starches should be used for specific recipes. Whether you’re creating a roux to make your signature macaroni and cheese or are unsure of how much malt powder to add to your chocolate shakes, we’ve got you covered on all of your food thickening agent questions.

What is a Food Thickener?

food thickener is a thickening agent that increases the viscosity of a liquid mix without interfering with its other properties. Knowing how to thicken food is essential for preparing many recipes; most sauces, gravies, soups, and desserts are thickened with starch. Each thickening agent has properties best suited for specific recipes. One of the most commonly used methods for thickening sauces and other recipes is the gelatinization of starches.

Food Thickening Methods

If you attempt to thicken a sauce to put in your gravy boat by simply stirring flour into the simmering liquid, you’ll end up with lumps. The starch around each lump of powder expands and forms a gel that separates granules. Luckily, there are easy methods to help prevent lumpy sauces! They also help eliminate any unpleasant raw-flour taste if the sauce isn’t simmered long enough. The following are methods commonly used to prep flour or starch before you use it as a thickener:

Beurre Manie

Equal parts flour and soft, pliable butter, these two ingredients are kneaded together until every flour particle is coated with the fat, creating a dough ball known as beurre manie. This thickening agent is perfect for adding shine and viscosity to your sauces, soups, and stews. 

  • Vegetarian

Liaison

Used only for slightly thickening custards or sauces, liaisons are made by tempering 1/3 of your hot mixture/sauce to a stainless steel bowl of whipped egg yolks and cream. Constantly whisk this, so the eggs and cream do not curdle. Once homogenous, add the bowl’s entire contents back to the mixture/sauce and keep whisking until the sauce turns slightly thicker. The liaison method also gives your sauces a richer, creamier texture and mouthfeel. 

  • Vegetarian & Gluten-Free

Roux

As a liquid thickening agent, a roux is a perfect way to add viscosity to various soups and sauces, especially four out of the five Mother Sauces used in French cuisine. Equal parts flour and fat are whisked in a hot pan until smooth and then cooked to a white, blond, or brown roux, depending on desired caramelization and depth. Gluten-free flours can be used in place of the more common flours to offer more options for your gluten-sensitive patrons. 

  • Vegetarian

Slurry

Using starches such as cornstarch, arrowroot powder, and the like require more than simply adding the powder to your batch of soup. If added straight to the pot in this way, the starch will quickly clump up and not homogenously disperse throughout your dish. To combat this, you must first make a slurry. In a small bowl, add an equal amount of starch and cold liquid together and smooth out until paste forms, creating the slurry. Whisk your slurry into the hot, simmering liquid you wish to thicken and bring to a boil. Keep whisking and boiling simultaneously until there is no longer a starch taste. 

  • Vegan & Gluten-Free

Types of Food Thickening Agents

Pure Food Thickening Starches

Pure starches have greater thickening power and add less color to a final dish, making them ideal for sauces, puddings, and fillings. Gluten-free thickeners have become an emerging trend for food allergy-conscious bakeries and restaurants. Thickening starches are particularly important in gluten-free baking because they mimic gluten’s “sticky” effects and create a pleasant texture in baked goods. Luckily, many pure starch and leavening ingredients are naturally gluten-free! Just be sure to check nutrition info for ingredients containing these variations of wheat: barley, durum, faro, malt, Matzoh, oats, rye, semolina, spelled, and wheat (bran, flour, germ, starch, and hydrolyzed protein). Use this food thickeners list to find a starch perfect for your recipe!

Agar-Agar

Made from red algae, this thickener is a jelly-like substance that is perfect for substituting gelatin when making vegetarian and vegan foods. Agar-agar (often referred to as “kanten” or simply “agar”) is odorless, flavorless, and colorless, keeping your recipes to their tried-and-true perfection. 

  • Vegan & Gluten-Free
  • Common uses:
    • In Asian desserts
    • As a plant-based substitute for gelatin in vegan recipes
    • In preserves, jellies, and jams

Arrowroot

Derived from various tropical plants such as the arrowroot plant, tapioca, and cassava, arrowroot powder is a colorless and flavorless thickener with twice the thickening power of flour. It stands up against acids that normally break down other starches. 

  • Vegan & Gluten-Free
  • Common uses:
    • Thickening soups, sauces, gravies, and pie fillings
    • Coating foods before frying to create a crispy exterior
    • As a vegan substitute for eggs in baked goods and burgers

Cornstarch

The most common starches, cornstarch, is derived from corn, making it vegan and gluten-free, transparent, and relatively flavorless. This completely versatile starch is used in savory and sweet dishes alike: gelatinizing fruit pie fillings or thickening your hefty, stick-to-your-bones soups.

  • Vegan & Gluten-Free
  • Common uses:
    • Thickening soups, sauces, gravies, and pie fillings
    • Coating foods before frying to create a crispy exterior
    • As a vegan substitute for eggs in baked goods or burgers

Gelatin

Coming in powder or sheet forms, gelatin is made from the collagen found in various animal body parts. Gelatin can be used as a stabilizer or texturizer but is most commonly used as a thickener for marshmallows, gummy snacks, trifles, aspics, mousse, mirror glazes, panna cotta, and other gelatin desserts. 

  • Gluten-Free
  • Common uses:
    • Thickening puddings, ice cream, and panna cotta
    • Creating a firm texture in gummy candies, marshmallows, and other desserts
  • Not recommended for use with pineapple, guava, kiwi, or ginger root

Pectin

Pectin is a natural starch found in the seeds, rinds, and membranes of citrus fruits and is especially high in structured, firmer fruits such as apples and quinces. Mainly used for thickening jams, jellies, and marmalades, this natural thickener gels the macerated fruits when combined with acid and sugar and cooked at around 220 degrees Fahrenheit. 

  • Vegan & Gluten-Free
  • Common uses:
    • Thickening jams, jellies, marmalades, and preserves

Potato Starch

Potato starch is just as its name suggests: starch extracted from potatoes. As an amazing thickening and binding agent, it is popular in many gluten-free recipes. With a low gelatinizing temperature, relatively colorless, odorless, and tasteless, and a strong binding texture, it is no wonder that potato starch is used for cooking and baking applications alike.

  • Vegan & Gluten-Free
  • Common uses:
    • Thickening soups, sauces, gravies, and pie fillings
    • Coating foods before frying to create a crispy exterior
  • Not recommended for use in dishes with a long cooking or baking time

 

Tapioca Starch

Extracted from the cassava plant, tapioca starch is a very fine, starchy, white powder that is a great thickening agent for food. Slightly sweet tapioca starch is sometimes used in cornstarch, potato starch, and even wheat flour in gluten-free baking! Tapioca starch gives baked goods a crispy crust and chewy center and is superior to arrowroot starch and potato starch.

  • Vegan & Gluten-Free
  • Common uses:
    • Thickening soups, sauces, and desserts
    • As a vegan substitute for eggs in baked goods or burgers
    • Creating a crisp, chewy texture in gluten-free baked goods

Xanthan Gum

As a plant-based, all-purpose thickening agent and stabilizer, xanthan gum is commonly used to thicken sauces and gravies and is famous in the gluten-free baking community! Plus, mixing this with yogurt, ice cream, sherbet, and frozen yogurt adds substance and thickness and prevents ice crystals from forming.

  • Vegan & Gluten-Free
  • Common uses:
    • Thickening soups, sauces, gravies, and pie fillings
    • Stabilizing ice cream and other frozen treats
    • Mimicking the elasticity and viscosity of gluten in gluten-free baked goods

Common Leavening Agents

Common leavening agents release gases that form air pockets throughout the dough or batter. As the product bakes, the gases expand and cause the product to rise. The proteins in the dough or batter are then set around the air pockets to give products their rise and texture.

Baking Powder

This is a mixture of baking soda and an added acid, such as cream of tartar and sodium aluminum sulfate. Baking powder also contains starch to prevent lumping and to balance chemical reactions. Once the baking powder is in contact with liquid, it reacts quickly; therefore, products made with baking powder must be baked soon after the powder is added to prevent carbon dioxide from escaping from the batter or dough.

  • Vegan & Gluten-Free
  • Common uses:
    • The leavening agent in baked goods with low acidity levels

Baking Soda

(Sodium bicarbonate): This alkaline compound (base) will release carbon dioxide gas if both an acid and moisture are present. When heated during baking, the carbon dioxide expands to give baked goods their characteristic texture known as “crumb.” Heat is unnecessary for this reaction to occur; therefore, products made with baking soda must be baked at once to prevent carbon dioxide from escaping from the batter or dough.

Acids commonly used with baking soda are buttermilk, sour cream, lemon juice, honey, molasses, and fruits high in acid, such as citrus.

  • Vegan & Gluten-Free
  • Common uses:
    • The leavening agent in baked goods include acidic ingredients like buttermilk, cream of tartar, lemon juice, or molasses

Prep Note: If more leavening action is needed, add baking powder instead of baking soda. Too much baking soda results in a soapy or bitter taste and yellow and brown coloring.

Yeast

This living organism feeds on sugars, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide, the gas that raises a dough to give it the proper texture. This organic leavening agent will take a substantial amount of time to rise, so the temperature must be controlled carefully. 

  • Vegan & Gluten-Free
  • Common uses:
    • The leavening agent in loaves of bread, pizza crusts, and some cakes

Alternative Baking Agents

Here’s a list of thickening agents for cooking that are great alternatives to more common starches and leavening agents. Try these less common thickening agents to add unique flavor and texture to your baked goods, beverages, and puddings!

Cocoa Powder

Popular in desserts, cocoa powder is a starch (although it’s not commonly referred to as one!). Made from the brown powder left after fat (cocoa butter) is removed from cocoa beans, the cocoa powder does not contain sweetener or flavoring and is used primarily in baked goods.

  • Vegan & Gluten-Free
  • Common uses
    • Thickening and adding chocolate flavor to baked goods and desserts

Cream of Tartar

(Potassium hydrogen tartrate): This fine white powder is a by-product of the wine-making process (it forms inside barrels during grape fermentation). It is commonly used when beating egg whites to increase heat tolerance and volume, ideal for meringues and soufflés. It will also help prevent the crystallization of sugar syrups, resulting in creamier candy and frostings. 

  • Vegan & Gluten-Free
  • Common uses:
    • Stabilizing whipped cream and egg whites 
    • Adding creamy texture to candies and frostings

Malted Milk Powder

A dry mix of malted barley flour, wheat flour and powdered milk, this powder is commonly used to thicken milkshakes and baked goods.

  • Vegetarian
  • Common uses:
    • Thickening milkshakes
    • Adding umami flavor to baked goods

How to Store Thickening Agents

The best way to store thickening agents is by keeping them in an air-tight container in a cool, dry place. Most thickeners (especially powder) can deteriorate if not promptly used, especially from heat. If they absorb moisture from the air, they can lose their effectiveness. Be sure to check individual labels for storage instructions.

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