When you are living a gluten-free lifestyle, it can be a never-ending battle to find ways to get your food to taste…well…normal. And when you want to make gravy, a fruit pie, or a sauce, part of making it taste “normal” is choosing the right gluten-free thickener, and knowing how to use it. Fortunately, you have a variety of gluten-free thickeners to choose from.
Cornstarch. Even cooks who aren’t gluten free probably have a box of this staple in their pantry. Cornstarch is great for sauces and gravies, and it also gives baked goods structure and a soft texture.
Cornstarch tip: Cornstarch doesn’t mix well with ingredients that are acidic, such as sour cream or wine. Arrowroot goes better with these. And, if you are using cornstarch for sauce or gravy, mix it with cold water first. If you add it directly into the hot liquid it will clump.
Tapioca starch. It can be rather confusing, but this is sometimes called tapioca flour. Tapioca starch is known for its sweet flavor, which makes it perfect for use in fruit pies. Often, foods such as gluten-free crackers are made with tapioca starch.
Tapioca tip: Instead of using powder, you might try instant tapioca beads or pearls. These work well in pies and in gravies. And, the tapioca starch shown here is less than $3 / box!
Arrowroot tip: If you want to freeze a sauce to use later, this is the starch to use. It holds up well during both the freezing and the thawing. Also, when you are cooking a sauce with arrowroot, make sure you don’t overheat it or it will lose its thickening properties. Sauces made with arrowroot should be cooked on low and taken off of heat promptly.
Potato starch tip: Make sure you don’t confuse potato flour with potato starch! Don’t use potato starch in recipes that require boiling, although it can withstand high temperatures.
Guar gum tip: Make sure you measure carefully when using guar gum. If you use the wrong amount, you may end up with stringy baked goods.
Xanthan gum tip: Like guar gum, make sure you measure carefully, or else risk gummy, heavy, or slimy baked goods. Also, because it is made with corn, people with corn allergies or sensitivities may want to avoid xanthan gum.
All of these thickeners are fairly common and easy to find. Here are some of the more unusual gluten-free thickening agents….
- Water chestnut starch
- Sweet potato starch
- Agar powder. This is derived from red algae. It is a good source of iron and a good vegetable substitute for gelatin.
- Kudzu powder. “Kudzu” is a tuber. The powder comes in big chunks; you’ll need to add powder to cold water and stir it into a paste before you add it to soup. Add towards the end of cooking, and make sure you stir consistently while heating. (By the way, kudzu, when drunk as a tea, is also said to help digestion and relieve fatigue.)
If you would like to try any of these unusual thickeners, try your local Asian market. Or, there is always the Internet.
When you are cooking without gluten, you have lots of thickening agents to choose from. Try the traditional ones like cornstarch, or branch out a little and see what agar and kudzu are all about.