All thickening agents are created equal
March 30, 2011
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A common technique in cooking is to use a starch to thicken a liquid such as a gravy or sauce. Wheat starch (flour) and corn starch are perhaps the most common, but potato starch, arrowroot, and tapioca are also used. Does it matter which one you use? Most definitely. These agents differ in five ways.
- Flavor: does the thickening agent add its own flavor to the sauce or is it neutral in taste?
- Thickening power: just how thick can you go?
- Consistency: the molecular structure of some starches results in long strands that can give the sauce a stringy texture.
- Stability: will the sauce remain thick with long cooking or will it thin out?
- Appearance: is the resulting sauce clear or opaque?
Now let’s look at how the various thickening agents stack up:
- Wheat (flour): smooth consistency, low maximum thickness, good stability, strong flavor (which can be greatly reduced by cooking the flour in fat before adding to the liquid), and opaque appearance.
- Corn starch: smooth consistency, moderate maximum thickness, moderate stability, strong flavor, and opaque appearance.
- Potato starch: stringy consistency, very high maximum thickness, poor stability, mild flavor, and clear appearance.
- Tapioca flour: stringy consistency, high maximum thickness, poor stability, no flavor, and clear appearance.
- Arrowroot: stringy consistency, high maximum thickness, good stability, no flavor, and clear appearance.