Here’s a list of various thickeners for adding substance to sauces, gravies, soups, and juicy braises, etc. They all have their particular quirks, but all are good. Plus, some are perfect for those eating a low-carb diet, while others lend themselves to a vegan diet. Your choice!
Reduction is a slow but sure way of thickening sauces and concentrating flavors; it’s also very simple. Method: Cook the sauce in an uncovered pan until it’s thickened—through evaporation—to your liking.
DAIRY & EGGS
Butter is a modest thickener. Consider beurre blanc, a sauce that is nothing more than a bit of wine or vinegar reduced over heat with some shallots before butter is whisked in to complete the thickening. The finished texture of butter-thickened sauces is a little thicker than heavy cream.
You can add a small amount of heavy cream to a puréed vegetable sauce to thicken it and add richness. A reduction also works: cream, once reduced, gives sauces a rich texture and flavor.
As with heavy cream, you can add sour cream to a puréed vegetable sauce to thicken it and add richness. It also makes a delicious base for rich pasta sauces. Additionally, it’s a core ingredient in Beef or Chicken Paprika, acting as both a thickening agent and flavor component. Do not let sour cream boil, as it will separate.
Mayonnaise is a good thickener for salad dressings and dips. Flavored with garlic, it becomes aioli. Flavored with ketchup and chopped pickles, it becomes 1000 Island Dressing. Caesar dressing just needs the additions of Dijon mustard, garlic, lemon, and Parmesan. Other flavoring ideas: curry, hot sauce, pesto, tarragon-lemon.
Method: To thicken pan juices for a gravy or sauce, whisk small amounts of cream cheese with a cup of cooked pan juices from a meat or vegetable dish. Then add the thickened mixture back into the main sauce. Repeat, if needed, until the sauce is thickened to your satisfaction.
Grated Parmesan cheese can be used to thicken recipes such as Alfredo sauce, minestrone soup, and other Italian dishes. Method: Whisk Parmesan into a cup of warm liquid, then add the thickened mixture back into the main dish.
Cheddar, jack and other semi-firm cheeses can be used to thicken sauces, but of course the sauce then becomes a “cheese sauce” 🙂 Method: Over medium-low heat, add cheese slowly, stirring until it melts, then add a bit more until the sauce is smooth and thick. Do not let cheese sauces boil, they will separate.
Method: To use yolks to thicken a sauce, beat yolks until well blended. Add a small amount of warmed sauce to the beaten yolks to avoid any curdling. Whisk this mixture until well blended, then add back to the main sauce. Again, whisk until smooth. Heat until the mixture has bubbles next to the pan’s sides (just starting to boil), and then simmer until thickened, about one minute. Uses: Egg yolks add a silky, velvety texture to soups and sauces.
PLANTS, NUTS & SEEDS
Puréed cauliflower is a great thickening agent. Method: Chop the cauliflower into chunks, boil the chunks in a large pot until very tender, and drain completely. Blend or process the purée, and add some pan juices or broth to reach the consistency you desire.
As a quick method to thicken a stew or braise, tomato paste both deepens color and adds sweetness.
Puréed Beans, Potatoes, Yams
NOT LOW CARB—Puréed legumes and starchy vegetables add flavor, protein, and thickening power to soups and stews. Method: When making vegetable soups, pour a quarter of the soup into a blender, purée, and add it back into the soup.
NOT LOW CARB—The addition of oats (steel-cut or rolled), farina, couscous, or rice make lovely thickeners for soups and vegetarian stews.
Nuts & Nut Butters
Nuts can make good, flavorful thickeners for stews. Method: Just grind them down to a flour or butter, and add them slowly to a cooking stew, stirring constantly until they’ve been completely incorporated.
Canned coconut milk lightly thickens curries beautifully, and boxed almond, soy, and oat milks are wonderful plant-based milks for sauces and soups.
Because chia seeds form a gel in liquid, they can be added to soups, stews, sauces, and marinades to help thicken the liquid in place of corn starch or flour. Chia seeds can also be blended into juice smoothies to add the thicker texture normally provided by whole fruits or yogurt.
Gelatin & Agar Agar
Unsweetened, unflavored gelatin or agar agar, if used carefully, thicken sauces beautifully. Agar agar is preferred by vegetarians and vegans because it is made from seaweed, rather than gelatin, which is made from cow’s hooves. Agar agar has one pronounced advantage over gelatin: it will stay set at room temperatures, unlike gelatin which eventually melts. Method: Use 1-1/2 teaspoons of gelatin or agar agar for every 1 cup of sauce liquid for a thin sauce, and up to 4-1/2 teaspoons per 1 cup for a thick sauce. Sprinkle the powdered gelatin or agar agar over the surface of a small amount of cold water, whisking. Allow it to sit for a few minutes to hydrate, then add to your sauce, stirring for a minute. Do not allow to boil. Allow the sauce to cool slightly at room temperature until it begins to thicken, then serve warm.
NOT LOW CARB—Arrowroot has twice the thickening power of wheat flour, which means less thickener needed, less added favor, fewer calories. Arrowroot thickens more rapidly than many other thickeners because its starch gelatinizes at a lower temperature — it doesn’t need to be boiled to thicken. Method: Dissolve 1 teaspoon of arrowroot powder in 4 tablespoons of cold liquid — usually water. Mix it well to ensure it’s dissolved. Then add to the mixture you want to thicken. 1 tablespoon will render 1 cup of liquid medium-thick. Uses: meat glazes, fruit sauces, puddings, custards. Good with delicate sauces and acidity, bad with dairy, doesn’t freeze well.
Cornstarch, Potato Starch, & Tapioca Starch
NOT LOW CARB—These starches have twice the thickening power of wheat flour, but cornstarch can also have the same starchy taste as flour unless it is cooked a bit (note: don’t boil). They all cook up clear. Method: Use 1 tablespoon starch per 1 cup liquid unless your recipe advises otherwise. First mix 1 tablespoon of starch with 1 tablespoon of cold water, then add to the rest of the water. Simmer for a minute to avoid a raw taste. Uses: Cornstarch is good with dairy dishes, not good in acidic sauce, doesn’t freeze well. Tapioca starch thickens very quickly, which makes it great for last-minute thickening, it also freezes well.
NOT LOW CARB—Kudzu doesn’t leave a starchy taste and is translucent when cooked. Method: Use in a ratio of 1-1/2 tablespoons of Kudzu starch per 1 cup of liquid being thickened for a sauce; use 2 tablespoons if you want to produce a more gelled liquid. For “thinner” thickening, use 1 teaspoon per cup. Mix the kudzu with an equal amount of cold water, then introduce into a hot liquid. Cook for several minutes to thicken.
Guar Gum & Xanthan Gum
Use guar gum or xanthan gum to thicken gravies and stews. Method: Use a blender to mix ingredients—1/4 teaspoon of either gum can thicken 1 cup of liquid. Guar gum requires heat to thicken, xanthan gum does not. I use xanthan gum a lot…quick and easy!