Thickeners

Thickeners
Thickeners add substance and body to sauces, stews, soups, puddings, pie fillings, and other dishes.
arrowroot starch, arrowroot, arrowroot flour, arrowroot powder
arrowroot starch
This starch thickener has several advantages over cornstarch. It has a more neutral flavor, so it's a good thickener for delicately flavored sauces. It also works at a lower temperature, and tolerates acidic ingredients and prolonged cooking better. And while sauces thickened with cornstarch turn into a spongy mess if they're frozen, those made with arrowroot can be frozen and thawed with impunity. The downside is that arrowroot is pricier than cornstarch, and it's not a good thickener for dairy-based sauces, since it turns them slimy. Arrowroot also imparts a shiny gloss to foods, and while it can make a dessert sauce glow spectacularly, it can make a meat sauce look eerie and fake. To thicken with arrowroot, mix it with an equal amount of cold water, then whisk the slurry into a hot liquid for about 30 seconds. Look for it in Asian markets and health food stores. Equivalents: One tablespoon thickens one cup of liquid. Substitutes: tapioca starch (very similar) OR Instant ClearJel® OR cornstarch (Cornstarch doesn't impart as glossy a finish and can leave a starchy taste if undercooked.) OR kudzu powder OR potato starch OR rice starch OR flour (Flour makes an opaque sauce, imparts a floury taste, and can easily turn lumpy. Use twice as much flour as arrowroot.)
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beurre manié, beurre manie, kneaded butter
beurre manié
This flour-butter mixture is used to correct overly thin sauces at the last minute. To make it, blend equal weights of butter and flour, then knead them together. After you whisk it into a sauce, let it cook for no more than a minute or two, since sauces thickened with flour pick up a starchy taste after they've cooked for a few minutes.
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ClearJel
This modified cornstarch is the secret ingredient that many commercial bakers use in their fruit pie fillings. Unlike ordinary cornstarch, ClearJel® works well with acidic ingredients, tolerates high temperatures, and doesn't cause pie fillings to weep" during storage. ClearJel® is an especially good choice if you're canning homemade pie fillings, since it doesn't begin thickening until the liquid begins to cool. This allows the heat the be more evenly distributed within the jar during processing. This is such an important safety advantage that ClearJel® is the only thickener the USDA recommends for home canning. You can also use ClearJel® to thicken sauces, stews, and the like, though it's a rather expensive all-purpose thickener. One downside is that products thickened with ClearJel® tend to break down if they're frozen and thawed. If you plan to freeze what you're making, use Instant ClearJel®, arrowroot, or tapioca starch. ClearJel® is available either as pearls or powder from mail-order suppliers, but it's not yet available in grocery stores.
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corn starch, corn starch, cornflour, crème de mais, maize cornflour
corn starch
One tablespoon (1/4 ounce) thickens one cup of liquid. Notes: This silky powder is used to thicken sauces, gravies, and puddings. Like other starch thickeners, cornstarch should be mixed into a slurry with an equal amount of cold water before it's added to the hot liquid you're trying to thicken. You then need to simmer the liquid, stirring constantly, for a minute or so until it thickens. Cornstarch doesn't stand up to freezing or prolonged cooking, and it doesn't thicken well when mixed with acidic liquids. Cornstarch is called cornflour or maize cornflour in Britain, Australia, and New Zealand. Don't confuse cornstarch with the finely ground cornmeal that Americans call corn flour
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egg yolks
egg yolks
Higher in fat, but increasing the egg yolks in a baked good often makes it moister and more flavorful. Egg yolks make wonderful thickeners--imparting both a rich flavor and velvety smooth texture--but they're tricky to use. You can't just whisk them into a simmering sauce--they'd curdle on contact. Instead, you need to "temper" them by adding some of the hot liquid to the egg yolks, whisking the mixture together, and then adding it to the sauce. To prevent the yolks from coagulating, you need to keep the sauce below 190°, although this rule can be broken if the sauce has a lot of flour in it. Finally, never cook sauces with egg yolks in aluminum pans or they'll turn gray.
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Instant Clearjel, Clear-jel, ClearJel® starch
Instant Clearjel
This is a modified cornstarch that professional bakers sometimes use to thicken pie fillings. It has several advantages over ordinary cornstarch. Instant ClearJel® thickens without cooking, works well with acidic ingredients, tolerates high temperatures, is freezer-stable, and doesn't cause pie fillings to weep" during storage. Don't use Instant ClearJel® for canning--it tends to break down.
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Instant flour, instant-blending flour, instantized flour, quick-mixing flour
Instant flour
You can mix this granular all-purpose flour into liquids without getting many lumps, so it's perfect for making gravies and batters. It's also good for breading fish. Wondra flour and Shake & Blend are popular brands.
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instant tapioca, granulated tapioca, instant pearl tapioca, quick tapioca
instant tapioca
These small, starchy granules are used to make tapioca pudding and to thicken pie fillings. The grains don't dissolve completely when cooked, so puddings and pies thickened with them end up studded with tiny gelatinous balls. If you don't mind the balls, you can also use instant tapioca to thicken soups, gravies, and stews. If the balls are a problem, just pulverize the instant tapioca in a coffee grinder or blender, or buy tapioca starch, which is already finely ground. Instant tapioca tolerates prolonged cooking and freezing, and gives the fillings an attractive glossy sheen. To use it in a pie filling, mix it with the other ingredients, then let it sit for at least five minutes so that the tapioca can absorb some of the liquid. Don't confuse instant tapioca with regular tapioca, which has larger beads, or with the even larger tapioca pearls sold in Asian markets. Minute® tapioca is a well-known brand.
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kudzu powder, kuzu powder
kudzu powder
This thickener is made from the tuber of the kudzu, the obnoxious vine that was imported from Japan a number of years ago and is now growing out of control all over the South. It's very expensive, and the main reason to buy it is for its reputed medicinal benefits. It comes in small chunks. To thicken a liquid, crush the chunks into a powder, mix them with an equal amount of cold water, then stir the mixture into the hot liquid and simmer for a few minutes until the sauce is thickened. Look for kudzu in health food stores.
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lotus root, lotus, quangdong, tenno
lotus root
Slices of the lotus root have a beautiful pattern. The fresh version is available sporadically; if not, the canned version is almost as good. Rinse and drain before using. Look for it in Asian markets.
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pectin
pectin
In order to make preserves like jams and jellies, you normally cook together fruit, acid, sugar, and pectin, a substance found in certain fruits that gels when heated. Some fruits -- like quinces, gooseberries, tart apples, and sour plums -- contain enough natural pectin that they'll thicken all by themselves into preserves. Others, like cherries and some berries, need an extra boost to firm up. Jam recipes for pectin-deficient fruit normally call for liquid or powdered pectin, which you can find among the baking supplies in most supermarkets. The recipes usually specify what brand of pectin to use, and it's not a good idea to substitute one brand for another, since they have different formulas. Some brands (like Sure Jell and Certo) need acid and sugar to set, some (like Sure Jell for Low Sugar Recipes) need acid and just a little sugar to set, some (like Pomona's Universal Pectin® or Mrs. Wages Lite Home Jell Fruit Pectin®) don't need any sugar to set. Liquid pectin contains sulfite, which can cause an allergic reaction in people with sulfite sensitivites, but powdered pectin does not.
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potato starch, katakuriko, potato flour, potato starch flour
potato starch
This gluten-free starch is used to thicken soups and gravies. Its main advantage over other starch thickeners is that it's a permitted ingredient for Passover, unlike cornstarch and other grain-based foods. Liquids thickened with potato starch should never be boiled. Supermarkets often stock it among the Kosher products.
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roux
roux
This is a thickener that's made from equal weights of flour and a fat, like butter or meat drippings. It's especially good for thickening rich, hearty stews and gravies. To make it, heat the fat in a pan, then gradually whisk in the flour. Cook the mixture, stirring constantly, for at least several minutes, then gradually whisk in the hot liquid you're trying to thicken. You must then cook the sauce for at least 30 minutes to prevent it from acquiring a grainy texture and a starchy, floury taste. Some cooks make large batches of roux, and store it in the refrigerator or freezer.
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Sago starch, pearl sage, sago
Sago starch
This flour is made from the inner pulp of the sago palm. It's often used to make pudding, but it can also serve as an all-purpose thickener. Look for it in Asian markets.
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sahlab
sahlab
This is made from orchid tubers and has a pleasant, flowery smell. Look for it in Middle Eastern markets.
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Starch thickeners
Starch thickeners
Notes: These silky powders are used to thicken sauces, gravies, pie fillings, and puddings. They're popular because they thicken without adding fat or much flavor. To avoid lumps, mix the starch with an equal amount of cold liquid until it forms a paste, then whisk it into the liquid you're trying to thicken. Once the thickener is added, cook it briefly to remove the starchy flavor. Don't overcook--liquids thickened with some starches will thin again if cooked too long or at too high a temperature. Cornstarch, arrowroot, and tapioca are the most popular starch thickeners. They have different strengths and weaknesses, so it's a good idea to stock all three in your pantry. Starch thickeners give food a transparent, glistening sheen, which looks nice in a pie filling, but a bit artificial in a gravy or sauce. If you want high gloss, choose tapioca or arrowroot. If you want low gloss, choose cornstarch. Cornstarch is the best choice for thickening dairy-based sauces. Arrowroot becomes slimy when mixed with milk products. Choose arrowroot if you're thickening an acidic liquid. Cornstarch loses potency when mixed with acids. Sauces made with cornstarch turn spongy when they're frozen. If you plan to freeze a dish, use tapioca starch or arrowroot as a thickener. Starch thickeners don't add much flavor to a dish, although they can impart a starchy flavor if they're undercooked. If you worried that your thickener will mask delicate flavors in your dish, choose arrowroot. It's the most neutral tasting of the starch thickeners. Tapioca starch thickens quickly, and at a relatively low temperature. It's a good choice if you want to correct a sauce just before serving it.
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sweet potato starch
sweet potato starch
Asian cooks like to dredge pork in this before frying it.
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sweet rice flour, glutinous rice flour, glutinous rice powder, mochi flour
sweet rice flour
This thickener has the virtue of remaining stable when frozen. It's often used to make Asian desserts. Don't confuse sweet rice flour with ordinary rice flour. Look for it in Asian markets.
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tapioca, small pearl tapioca
tapioca
These are small beads of tapioca that are used to make tapioca pudding. The beads don't dissolve completely, so they end up as small, squishy, gelatinous balls that are suspended in the pudding. Don't confuse this with instant tapioca, which is granulated and often used to thicken fruit pie fillings, or with pearl tapioca, which has much larger balls.
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tapioca pearls, fish eye tapioca, large pearl tapioca, pearl tapioca
tapioca pearls
These round pellets are made from cassava roots. Asians use them to make puddings and a beverage called bubble tea. You can also use them to make tapioca pudding, though it's faster and easier to use instant or regular tapioca. The pearls are normally soaked for at least a few hours before they're added to a recipe.
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tapioca starch, almidon de yuca, cassava flour, tapioca flour, yucca starch
tapioca starch
Tapioca is a good choice for thickening pie fillings, since it thickens at a lower temperature than cornstarch, remains stable when frozen, and imparts a glossy sheen. Many pie recipes call for instant tapioca instead of tapioca starch, but instant tapioca doesn't dissolve completely and leaves small gelatinous blobs suspended in the liquid. This isn't a problem in a two-crust pies, but the blobs are more noticeable in single-crust pies. Tapioca starch is finely ground so that it dissolves completely, eliminating the gelatinous blob problem. The starch is also sometimes used to thicken soups, stews, and sauces, but the glossy finish looks a bit unnatural in these kinds of dishes. It works quickly, though, so it's a good choice if you want to correct a sauce just before serving it. Some recipes for baked goods also call for tapioca flour because it imparts a chewier texture.
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thickeners, liaisons, thickening agents
thickeners
Thickeners add substance and body to sauces, stews, soups, puddings, pie fillings, and other dishes. Tips: Before you add a thickener to a sauce, skim the fat from the top. Once you've added the thickener, the fat will be harder to remove. Flour is a good thickener for gravies, gumbos, and stews, since it gives them a smooth, velvety texture. It's best to mix it with fat first, either by making a roux or beurre manié, or by flouring and frying stew meat before adding a liquid to the pot. If you wish to cut fat from your diet, you can instead mix the flour with water and add it to the sauce, but you'll need to cook it for quite awhile to get rid of the starchy, raw flour taste. Sauces thickened with flour become opaque, and they may become become thin again if they're cooked too long or if they're frozen and then thawed. Starch thickeners like cornstarch are mixed with an equal amount of cold water, then added to warm liquids to thicken them. They're a good choice if you want a low-fat, neutral-tasting thickener. They give dishes a glossy sheen, which looks wonderful if you're making a dessert sauce or pie filling, but a bit artificial in a gravy or stew. If you get lumps in your sauce from a thickener, blend the sauce in a blender or food processor until it's smooth. Cereal grains like oatmeal, couscous, soup pasta, farina, are often used to thicken soups. Reduction is a slow but low-fat way of thickening sauces and concentrating flavors. Just cook down the sauce in an uncovered pan until it's thickened to your liking. Meat and fish glaces are a time-consuming--or expensive, if you buy them ready-made--way of thickening and enriching sauces. They're made by reducing stocks until they're thick and gelatinous. A good way to thicken soups or stews is to add grated starchy vegetables, or to purée the vegetables in the sauce. Nuts make good, flavorful thickeners for stews, though they're often expensive and high in fat. Just grind them down to a flour or butter, and add them to the dish. Egg yolks add a silky, velvety texture to soups and sauces, but they'll turn into scrambled eggs if they're not introduced carefully into the hot liquid. Cream, once reduced, gives sauces a rich texture and flavor as it thickens them, but it's high in fat. To make a low-fat cream sauce, use evaporated milk mixed with a starch thickener. Yogurt is a popular soup thickener in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
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ThickenThin™
This thickener has no calories, fat, or carbohydrates. It's great for thickening gravies, sauces, and soups, but it won't set up sufficiently to make puddings or custards. A little goes a long way, so use about half as much as you would a starch thickener.
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water chestnut starch, water chestnut flour, water chestnut starch
water chestnut starch
Asian cooks often dredge foods in this before frying them, because it gives fried foods a crisp, nutty coating. It can also be used as a thickener. Look for it in Asian markets and health food stores. Don't confuse this with chestnut flour.
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