Food Thickening Agents for Baking

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Ever wonder why your grandma used flour and water to thicken gravy? Mixing a starch into a recipe to thicken its texture is a tried and true trick used by chefs for a variety of dishes! Not sure what thickener is best for you? Our guide will help you choose the best thickening agent based on your recipe needs.

What is a Thickener?

16 oz. Stainless Steel Sauce Boat

Most sauces and gravies are thickened with some kind of starch. Thickening agents increase the viscosity of a liquid mix without interfering with its other properties. Each thickening agent has properties best suited for specific recipes. One of the most commonly used methods for thickening sauces and other recipes is through the gelatinization of starches like corn starch, arrowroot, and wheat flour. Leavening agents like baking soda and yeast expand in recipes to give dough that light, fluffy texture.

Preparing Your Thickener

If you attempt to thicken a sauce or gravy 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 prevents granules from separating. Luckily, there are easy methods to help prevent lumpy sauces! They also help eliminate any unpleasant raw-flour taste that can occur if sauce isn't simmered long enough. The following are methods commonly used to prep flour or starch before you use it as a thickener:

Roux

The most common method to prep flour or starch for thickening is to create a roux. Roux thickens sauces, soups, and stews, and lends a unique flavor to these dishes (for example, a dark roux is a key ingredient in Creole and Cajun gumbos and stews). Made from a mixture of fat (generally pan drippings or butter) and flour, a roux is slowly cooked on its own before it is added to sauces. The fat helps the starch expand and separate, lubricating it so it can be smoothly incorporated into the liquid. A roux should be cooked, cooled slightly, and then whisked into the sauce when you're ready to thicken it.

Prep Note: When preparing a roux, add cold liquid to a hot roux, and add hot liquid to a cold roux.

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Remember this rule of thumb: The darker the roux, the less thickening power it has. However, you'll get a deeper flavor from a darker roux (both the flavor and color of the roux becomes deeper the longer the roux cooks). White roux has more thickening power than a darker roux, because the browning process causes some of the starch in the flour to break down, making it unavailable for thickening.

Slurry

16 inch Piano Whip

The easiest and quickest thickening method, a slurry thickens almost immediately and creates a glossy appearance. To create a slurry, corn starch is stirred into a small amount of cold water or stock, then whisked into a simmering sauce. The same method can be used for nearly any starch; however, it's important not to overestimate the amount of starch you need, or to overheat the sauce. Too much heat can cause the starch to break down and the sauce to thin.

Prep Note: Slurries can be prepared in advance; just be sure to stir right before use to mix starch that has settled to the bottom of the container.

Beurre Manié

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Essentially the same as a roux, beurre manié (or kneaded butter) is a quicker method commonly used to thicken soups and sauces. It is also used as a finishing step for sauces to give a smooth, shiny texture to sauces prior to serving. To create this mix, flour is worked into the butter by hand or with a fork, then formed into small balls and added (uncooked) to a sauce. When the beurre manié is whisked into a warm liquid, the butter melts to release the flour without creating lumps.

Prep Note: Beurre manié works as a last-minute thickener, but note that it should be used sparingly. Too much can leave a floury taste behind.

Cooking Pre-Cautions

Thickening agents require extra care when cooking. Some starches will lose their thickening quality when cooked for too long or at too high a temperature; on the other hand, cooking starches for too short of a time or too low of a temperature can result in an unpleasant, starchy taste or cause water to seep out of the finished product after cooling.

Also note that higher viscosity can cause foods to burn more easily during cooking. When cooking, add thickener cautiously. If over-thickened, more water may be added but it may result in loss of flavor and texture.

Which Thickener is Best for You?

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Here, we break down the difference between pure starches vs. common leaving agents. In short, pure starches have greater thickening power and add less color to a final dish, making them ideal for sauces, puddings, and fillings. Common leavening agents, on the other hand, are best for recipes requiring dough or batter to rise. Scroll down to learn more about Pure Starches and Common Leavening Agents.

Gluten free thickeners have become an emerging trend for food allergy-conscious bakeries and restaurants. 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, spelt, and wheat (bran, flour, germ, starch, and hydrolyzed protein).

Pure Starches

Pure starches have greater thickening power, ounce for ounce, than flour and do not require extended simmering time. They also add much less - if any - color to a final dish, making them ideal for thickening sauces, puddings, and fillings where a translucent effect is desired. Keep in mind, however, that pure starches break down more quickly over time than roux.

To avoid lumps, never add dry starch to a product. Instead, dilute these thickeners using the methods described above in Preparing Your Thickener (roux, slurry, or beurre manié).

Storage: If not promptly used, most thickeners (especially powder) can deteriorate. They should always be kept tightly covered; if they absorb moisture from the air, they can lose their effectiveness. Store in a cool, dry place, as heat deteriorates them. Be sure to check individual labels for storage instructions.

Regal Arrowroot Powder 20 oz.

Arrowroot Powder: This thickening powder is roughly equivalent to corn starch, but more translucent. It will not gel or weep when cooled. This is the popular choice for mixing with acidic liquids, as corn starch loses potency when mixed with acids.

Corn Starch 16 oz. Box

Corn Starch: This translucent powder is the popular choice for fruit sauces or Asian dishes that need a high-gloss sheen. Corn starch thickens when heated, but gels and weeps upon cooling. Its thickening power diminishes with excessive heating.

Tapioca Granules 5 lb. Bulk Bag

Tapioca Granules: These translucent, pearly granules have a thickening power slightly greater than corn starch. They are commonly used to thicken pie fillings, and can also be used for creamy puddings, custards, and thickening soups and gravies. 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.

Common Leavening Agents

Baking soda and baking powder are the two principal chemical leavening agents. They release gases (primarily carbon dioxide) through chemical reactions between acids and bases in your recipe. These gases 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 then set around the air pockets to give products their rise and texture.

Storage: If not promptly used, most thickeners (especially powder) can deteriorate. They should always be kept tightly covered; if they absorb moisture from the air, they can lose their effectiveness. Store in a cool, dry place, as heat deteriorates them. Active dry yeast should be kept refrigerated in an airtight container after opening. Be sure to check individual labels for storage instructions.

Baking Soda 1 lb. Bag 12/Case

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 not necessary for this reaction to occur; therefore, products made with baking soda must be baked at once to prevent carbon dioxide escaping from 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.

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.

Baking Powder 5 lb. Bag

Baking Powder: This is a mixture of baking soda and an added acid, such as cream of tartar and/or sodium aluminum sulfate. Baking powder also contains a starch to prevent lumping and to balance chemical reactions. Once 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 escaping from batter or dough.

Lesaffre SAF-Instant Red Dry Yeast 1 lb. Vacuum Pack

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

Miscellaneous Baking Agents

Try these less common thickening agents to add unique flavor and texture to your baked goods and puddings! Some of them even double as both thickeners and bakery toppings.

Storage: If not promptly used, most thickeners (especially powder) can deteriorate. They should always be kept tightly covered; if they absorb moisture from the air, they can lose their effectiveness. Store in a cool, dry place, as heat deteriorates them. Be sure to check individual labels for storage instructions.

Cocoa Powder 5 lbs. / Case
Cocoa Powder: Popular in desserts, cocoa powder is actually 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, cocoa powder does not contain sweetener or flavoring and is used primarily in baked goods.

Regal Cream of Tartar - 16 oz.
Cream of Tartar (Potassium hydrogen tartrate): This fine white powder is a by-product from 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, making it ideal for meringues and soufflés. It will also help prevent crystallization of sugar syrups, resulting in creamier candy and frostings.

Malted Milk Powder 2 lb. Bag
Malted Milk Powder: A dry mix of malted barley flour, wheat flour and powdered milk, this powder is commonly used to thicken milk shakes and baked goods. It also doubles as a topping for these products!

Additional Resources

Want to learn more about basic baking ingredients and equipment? View the following handy guides!