How to use Nature’s THICKENING Agents

…in Gluten-Free Cooking!

Here you'll find everything you need to know to use Nature's Thickening Agents in your Gluten-Free World Kitchen!
Here you'll find everything you need to know to use Nature's Thickening Agents in your Gluten-Free World Kitchen!

Welcome to my HOW TO GLUTEN-FREE SERIES – Part 4

I’m SO thrilled to continue this How to Gluten-Free Series with you today! Thank you ever so much for joining me!

Making gravy this HOLIDAY SEASON? Need to accommodate for a guest who is gluten-free? I’m here for you! Today we will dive into Nature’s THICKENING AGENTS and how to use them in your Gluten-Free World Kitchen!

My sincere hope is that by creating this series, I can prevent you from experiencing some of the growing pains that I went through when switching to Gluten-Free! The goal is to give you as many tools as possible so that you may enjoy ALL of your family favourites again without worrying about the gluten content. I hope you’ll join me in my Canadian World Kitchen as we journey to Gluten-Free living together!

You’ll LOVE this post if:

  1. You’re cooking Gluten-Free but need something to thicken sauces, gravy.
  2. You miss your favourite family recipes & need help to make them Gluten-Free.
  3. You would like to cook for someone who is Gluten-Free.
  4. You’re looking to learn more about ingredients in Gluten-Free cooking and what will make you successful at cooking Gluten-Free.
  5. You want to find a fantastic but easy substitute for corn starch or wheat flours in your recipes.
  6. All of this Gluten-Free stuff overwhelms you.

Contents (Jump AHEAD anytime)

  2. My Go-To Natural THICKENING Agents
  3. How to USE Nature’s THICKENING Agents in Gluten-Free cooking
  4. How to use THICKENING Agents to swap for Gluten-Free in 1-Simple Step!

1. What are Nature’s THICKENING AGENTS?

THICKENING AGENTS are literally agents that thicken your dish. They can be added to any dish to help increase its viscosity. Wheat flour and Corn Starch are often used for this purpose. Below is a list of some of my favourite Gluten-Free, Corn-Free THICKENING AGENTS and how to use them.

2. My Go-To Natural THICKENING Agents

  1. Tapioca Starch (aka Tapioca Flour)
Tapioca Flour (aka Tapioca Starch) & Cassava plant.

Like other starches, Tapioca Flour (aka Tapioca starch) is a very fine white powder that comes from the pulp of the cassava plant. It is not the same thing as cassava flour however, which is made from the entire root of the cassava plant. In addition to being an excellent thickening agent in soups, sauces and fillings, Tapioca Flour is used to help create the chewy texture and crispy crust in our Momma’s Marvellous Montreal Style Bagels. This slightly sweet starch flour is a staple in my Gluten-Free World Kitchen. You can find Tapioca Flour at most grocery stores in the organic/natural foods aisle. I like to use Bob’s Red Mill brand.

Tapioca Starch Tip: Tapioca Starch can NOT withstand higher temperatures so please be sure to add this thickening agent at the END of your cook time, just before serving, and turn the stove off or to very low temp.

  1. Potato Starch
Potato Starch

Potato Starch is a starchy flour that can be used as a binder and thickener. However, Potato Starch is NOT the same thing as Potato Flour. Potato starch is a natural way to thicken a dish, as potato starch absorbs and holds liquid. You know when you soak potatoes before baking so that they are more crispy? Well, that’s kind of how potato starch is made. Crushed potatoes are soaked in water, then the starch that comes out of the water is dried and becomes the white starch known as Potato Starch. Potato Flour, on the other hand, is created by using the entire potato which is cooked, dried and then ground. You can find Potato Starch at most grocery stores in the organic/natural foods aisle. I use Bob’s Red Mill.

Potato Starch TIP: Potato Starch can withstand higher temperatures without breaking down, however do NOT boil your dish as it will break down the potato starch and it’s thickening ability will diminish!

  1. Arrowroot Powder
Arrowroot – used to make arrowroot powder

Many chefs find Arrowroot Powder is best for non-dairy based dishes as it has a very neutral flavour. Arrowroot is a root vegetable (similar to yam, sweet potato and yaro). It is high in protein and full of nutrients making it a wonderful addition to any dish! You can find Arrowroot Powder at most grocers and at local organic markets in Calgary like Blush Lane Organics & Community Natural Foods.

Arrowroot Powder Tip: If you want to freeze your dish and use it later this starch is your best bet! It can withstand freezing and thawing well. Many say that this is the starch to use for sauces that contain acid, like lemon or vinegar. A little dusting of Arrowroot Powder is also great to add a little crunch or crispiness when breading, baking, frying or roasting vegetables or meat.

  1. Chia Seeds
White & Black Chia Seeds

Chia seeds have double the power in your Gluten-Free Kitchen as they are both a BINDING agent & a THICKENING agent! They give a powerful nutritional punch with very few calories making them an ideal addition to any recipe! Chocked full of protein, fibre, antioxidants, Omega-3 fatty acids and essential nutrients, Chia Seeds are a true power house for health! I love Prana Chia Seeds which you can also find in Calgary at Blush Lane Organic Market, Community Natural Foods and Superstore (Loblaws).

Chia Seeds Tip: Chia Seeds are quite a powerful thickening agent as they create a gel like substance when combined with liquid. They can replace eggs, oil and butter! Make sure to use ground Chia Seeds and create a “slurry” with cold liquid as below.

  1. Flax Seeds (ground)
Flax Seeds are a fabulous thickening agent found in nature!
Flax Seeds

Flax seeds (Flax Meal – ground flax seeds), when combined with water act as a glue to help bind ingredients together kind of like egg whites and in that way thicken just like egg whites do. In fact, they are commonly used combined with water as an egg replacer.

Flax seeds are an excellent nutritional source of omega-3 fatty acids and fibre making them a powerful anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory agent! The numerous health benefits of flax seeds are widely documented including prevention of constipation, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and even digestive disorders. You can buy them ground as flax meal or as whole seeds and grind them yourselves).

Flax Seed Tips: Flax seeds oxidize overtime and become rancid giving a sour taste and odour. So make sure to store them in an air-tight container in the refrigerator or in a dark cool place. They can last for up to a year whole in the fridge, while ground flax won’t last as long. Check the expiration date and use the smell test just to make sure!

  1. Gluten-Free Flour Blend
How to create your own Crazy Good Gluten-Free All-Purpose Flour Blend!
Crazy Good Gluten-Free All-Purpose Flour Blend!

Gluten-Free Flour Blends can be used as a thickener in place of any Wheat Flour in a recipe! My Crazy Good Gluten-Free All-Purpose Flour works great for this purpose.

3. How to USE Nature’s THICKENING AGENTS in Gluten-Free Cooking

All of the THICKENING agents above can be used for almost ANY dish, although, you will find you prefer to use certain ones for particular dishes as they each have different flavours and flavour enhancing abilities as well as differing properties that they lend to a dish. In fact, all of the thickening agents have dual purpose in your Gluten-Free Kitchen. Be sure to consider all of their purposes when choosing the right thickening agent for a dish!

Below are some guidelines that I like to follow when choosing and using a thickening agent in my Gluten-Free World Kitchen.

4. How to use THICKENING Agents to SWAP for Gluten-Free in 1-STEP!

For Sauces / Gravy / Soups

When you can use a 1:1 Swap to make any recipe Gluten-Free in 1-Simple Step

Many recipes use gluten containing grains or corn starch to thicken sauces or fillings. These recipes often ask you to dissolve the flour or starch in water to create a “slurry”. You can simply substitute the wheat flour or corn starch for any of the starches listed above in a 1:1 ratio as long as it only calls for less than 2 Tbsp or so. I prefer to use Tapioca Starch, Potato Starch, Chia Seeds, Arrowroot Powder, or my Crazy Good Gluten-Free All-Purpose Flour.

NOTE: Bob’s Red Mill suggests to use 4tsp (20mL) of their Potato Starch for every 1 Tbsp (15mL)Cornstarch in a recipe. So if you’re substituting for Cornstarch, you may need to add a little more Gluten-Free starch (>1:1 ) to get the desired thickening. Just give it a try! I figure you can always add more as needed.

How to Create a “SLURRY” (combination of starch & cold liquid)

Using a slurry to make any recipe Gluten-Free in 1-Simple Step!

Recipes often call for a “slurry” to thicken soups, sauces and gravies. To create a gluten-free “slurry” to thicken any sauce or filling, just whisk together equal amounts of cold water, vegetable / chicken / beef stock, or even wine, with your choice of starch until smooth. I usually start small (1 Tbsp starch to 1 Tbsp stock but it doesn’t have to be exact) and then keep adding until reach desired consistency. You’ll need to keep whisking the slurry into your sauce or filling to avoid lumps.

Using a Chia Seeds to make any recipe Gluten-Free in 1-Simple Step!
I use Chia Seeds to thicken my Healthier Chia Infused Butter Chicken.

Add at the END of cooking!

You’ll need to add these starches in at the end of cooking your sauces, gravies, or soups because these root starches gelatinize at a lower temperature than corn starch and wheat flour slurries. They also tend to break down after cooking for longer periods. So just add them in at the end just before serving and at a lower temperature.

PLEASE NOTE: these starches will create a sauce that is a bit shinier looking and smooth feeling to the palate. The taste will still be amazing and no one will be the wiser!

For Filling / Casseroles

How to make any SAVOURY recipe Gluten-Free in 1-Simple Step!

As long as the amount of flour in a filling or casserole recipe is <1/2 cup or < 60g, you can simply substitute your favourite Gluten-Free All-Purpose Flour blend at a 1:1 ratio. Just make sure you chose a blend that has some starches in it to increase the thickening effects. My Crazy Good Gluten-Free All-Purpose Flour works great for this purpose! If your recipe calls for < 2 Tbsp simply substitute any of the starches listed above in a 1:1 ratio.

For Breading

When you can use a 1:1 Swap to make any recipe Gluten-Free in 1-Simple Step

Nature’s Thickening Agents can also be used to bread fish, chicken or even vegetables, you can use any gluten-free flour you have in the pantry. I like to use my Crazy Good Gluten-Free All-Purpose Flour for this purpose. I find the addition of the starches in this blend help create a crispy breading.

Arrowroot powder, Tapioca Flour (Starch) or Rice Crumbs on their own or in combination also works great to add a little crunch to any dish, like sweet potato fries!

Almond meal and hazelnut meal are also delightful coatings for breading if you can eat nuts.

What are your favourite THICKENING agents? Comment below to share with our community!

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