Meet Mark

Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

Tell Me More
Stay Connected
March 16, 2009

Dear Mark: Low-Carb Sauce Thickeners

By Mark Sisson
88 Comments

Dear Mark,

I’m trying to stay strictly primal/paleo, but I always run into problems when I need to thicken sauces or soups. I grew up learning to use flour/cornstarch like everyone else, but is there a good low-carb/primal alternative?

Thanks,
Raul

I received this email a few weeks ago, but it wasn’t the first. A number of readers have expressed their confusion when it comes to thickening sauces, gravies, or soups without using traditional floury methods. The question of thickening sauces is one of the hurdles I face every time I put up a recipe post – it’s become a bit of an internal struggle (as seen with last week’s beef and broccoli stir fry recipe, in which I hesitatingly called for a teaspoon of flour as a thickener) because while adding a bit of flour or cornstarch to a larger recipe may not drastically impact the carb count, it does complicate the consistently Primal message I try to convey. This post, I hope, will resolve that struggle.

There are plenty of ways to thicken a sauce without resorting to refined starches. In fact, thickening a sauce using Primal methods can produce a richer, more satisfying meal.

Reduction

The most rewarding way to thicken a sauce is by reduction. Indeed, learning how to reduce a sauce is important for any cook – home or professional. It’s quite simple, actually, but it’s an integral step in the thickening of any sauce or soup (whether you keep it Primal or use starches). Reduce the moisture content of a potential sauce by simmering over low heat and letting evaporation take over. The water goes, but the flavors stay. If you reduce too much, be prepared for incredibly potent flavors. Adding fats toward the end of the reduction process can complete the thickening process (more later).

Fats

Ah, the epic battle between fats and carbohydrates rages on. Fats can make effective thickeners, especially butter and especially with reductions. Say you’ve just seared a garlic-and-shallot-studded steak in your cast-iron pan. See those browned bits and bubbles of delicious beef fat and juices left behind? Keep the heat low and add some red wine. Scrape the good stuff off the bottom and let the wine reduce Toward the end, add a pat of cold butter and whisk it all together until smooth and creamy and viscous. Drizzle over your finished steak and veggies. Mmmm.

Heavy cream works well, too, especially for white sauces and soups. Again, the key is reduce, reduce, reduce.

Rendered duck, bacon, beef, or chicken fat can act like butter, if you want to avoid dairy altogether or add a different flavor profile. Just make sure you add the fat towards the end in its solid (cold) state.

Pureed Veggies

Adding a few scoops of pureed vegetables is another option, especially to thicken soups. Almost any acceptably Primal veggie will work: squash, carrot, broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, or mushrooms, just to name a few. Simply steam or soften the vegetables and then throw them in a food processor or otherwise pulverize them. Canned tomato paste works well, too. If you’re already cooking a vegetable-filled stew or soup for hours, this might happen on its own as the veggies break down and add density to the broth.

Primal Flours

You already know how much we love almond meal around here, and the other nut meals/flours can work as sauce thickeners. Unlike traditional flours, these don’t really clump when added directly to a sauce, but they can add flavors you might not expect or really want in your sauce, so be careful. You can also use nut butters – a little bit goes a long way.

I’ve heard good things about defatted coconut flour. Never used it myself, but it is an effectively low-carb (high in fiber, though). Anyone tried coconut flour?

Vegetable Gums

Vegetable gums sound a bit unappetizing, but they’re used in a lot of Asian cooking. Essentially pure fiber that absorbs moisture to form a gel, the most popular of the vegetable gums are xanthan gum and guar gum. Sprinkle over sauces while whisking to thicken, but be cautious – a little bit goes a long, long way, and too much will make your sauce “gummy” and “gooey” rather than creamy.

Vegetable gums can be a bit tricky to use properly, but there are products that make it easier. I’ve never used ThickenThin Not/Starch Thickener, but it’s touted as an easy-to-use thickener for sauces and soups without any net carbs or impact on taste. It combines guar, xanthan, carob, and acacia gums. There’s a far amount of noise about this stuff in the low-carb community, so I’m interested if anyone’s ever used it.

Conclusion
I’d say reduction is the most purely Primal way to thicken a sauce, but it’s not exactly the quickest or the easiest. It remains my favorite (excepting, of course, the fact that I haven’t tried the gums) because it produces the richest flavors and textures, especially with some sort of animal fat as a thickener. The nut flours work well enough, but the resultant textures will never completely compare to those of traditional flour thickeners; nuts are just too coarse and non-absorbent. Vegetable purees are delicious, nutritious thickeners, but they have limited use (mainly in soups and stews). As for the vegetable gums, I suppose these are technically PB-friendly – they come from natural sources and they’re definitely low-carb – but I’m not sure I’d want to rely on them completely, and I’m skeptical of “low-carb”packaging. Of course, I plan on trying them at some point, and I’d love to hear your experiences with them.

Oh, and for the broccoli beef recipe? I think a vegetable gum would be your best bet. I don’t know how well butter or cream would compliment the flavors, and I doubt nut flours would blend seamlessly into the sauce; with this one, you’re just going for texture alone, and the gums would probably achieve that without compromising flavor or cooking time.

Further Reading:

How to Make Dried Fruit

Egg Purchasing Guide

When it Comes to Fat, How Hot is Too Hot?

TAGS:  dear mark

Subscribe to the Newsletter

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

Leave a Reply

75 Comments on "Dear Mark: Low-Carb Sauce Thickeners"

avatar

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Son of Grok
7 years 8 months ago

I have been struggling with thickening sauces for a while now. Thank you for all of this info. I am goning to give coconut flour a whirl I think and see how that goes.

The SoG

RC
RC
5 years 8 months ago
Are you hip to COCONUT CREAM? It’s gluten-free, low-carb & a great thickener for almost any dish. Not to be confused with that awful, canned sludge used to make yucky blender drinks, Coconut Cream is made by mixing fresh, shredded coconut meat with hot water, the squeezing out the water. After 2 years of spending a pretty penny for a fancy ‘coconut cream concentrate’ from Tropical Traditions (a good quality product but it’s too dry & hard to work with, IMO), I had to start cutting corners in my grocery budget in order to keep buying grassfed beef. So I… Read more »
Rosana
Rosana
3 years 9 months ago

Love coconut flour for baking but it doesn’t thicken sauces.

Mary
7 years 8 months ago

I use Arrowroot to thicken sauces. You can find it by the spices at the grocery store. It works much like corn starch. I mix a teaspoon or so with a little bit of cold water (to reduce clumping), and then put it in whatever I’m making.

I try to use the reduction method as well, but am way too impatient.

Eric
Eric
6 years 8 months ago

Arrow root also freezes well, unlike corn starch. It thickens about the same and gives the same velvety sheen to the sauce.

Ailu
Ailu
7 years 8 months ago

I use konjac flour. Carb free, calorie free, gluten free and high in soluble fiber. Works better than cornstarch, has no taste of its own, so takes on the taste of whatever it’s stirred into. What more could one ask for?

Elisabeth
Elisabeth
1 year 3 months ago

“Side Effects of Konjac Root”
“Blockages of Esophagus, Throat or Intestine”
http://www.livestrong.com/article/149231-side-effects-of-konjac-root/

riocaz
8 months 1 day ago

While true those are highly unlikely to apply at the level required to thicken a sauce.
It’s only going to happen when people take it at supplement levels.

Tara
7 years 8 months ago

Xanthan gum come from metabolism of corn sugars by the bacteia Xanthomonas. So not strictly plant based. The end product is a film/goo produced by the bacteria.

Anyway, I use Xgum a lot. Be careful people, you need A LOT LESS than you would think to thicken sauces and soups. A teaspoon would do for a big pot of soup! Just mix it in a jar and poor it in like you would cornstarch (so it does not clump). Its great for hot and cold things too, and neednt boil to be effective. I love it.

Rosana
Rosana
3 years 9 months ago

I have tried xgum for thickening and can’t dissolve it in water, watch the trick?

Tara
7 years 8 months ago

Did I mention I cant type, at all? Yeesh.

Sarah
Sarah
7 years 8 months ago

Egg yolk?

bazzta
bazzta
7 years 8 months ago

Egg yolks work really well, used them for years! This is a really old trick. My grandma learned it from her ma, etc.

Richard Nikoley
7 years 8 months ago
A subject near and dear to my heart. I typically thicken 2-3 sauses per week and have become pretty adept at it. I agree with Mark: reduction is the best way to go, but caution: this adds two levels of added difficulty which you’ll easily manage with experience: 1. Quantity. You need to get good at having enough to go around once reduced to desired consistency. It may surprise you. 2. Time. It can often take a lot longer than you think. I like to get my sauces started way before anything else. If you get done ahead of time,… Read more »
Eva
Eva
7 years 8 months ago

Why no mention of arrowroot? It’s great, it works mostly like cornstarch without ANY flavor change, and you don’t need to have the sauce wicked hot to use it.
I’ve only baked with coconut flour, and from that experience I would say don’t use it for thickening!

Michelle
7 years 8 months ago

Coconut flour for me was a definate no no, I tried to thicken gravy with it and while it worked it had a weird texture. Just my two cents 🙂

Richard Nikoley
7 years 8 months ago
The coconut milk works wonderfully. It will be the consistency of a Thai curry dish and you can get it less or more thick, easily. No lumps, clumps, or weird consistency. Here’s a tip for a great sauce for roasts. Start with your beef stock, then add about 1/2 tsp each of rosemary and sage (a little less sage is fine — some people are really sensitive to the taste), savory also, if you like, 2 cloves crushed & chopped garlic, and then for the finale: 1/3 to a full small fresh jalapeno pepper, chopped finely, with the seeds. I… Read more »
Joe Matasic
Joe Matasic
7 years 8 months ago

I’ve used the Xanthan gum a number of times and have gotten used to it. Definitely need to watch the amount and it can be gel-like. I need to plan ahead better and work on the reductions.

Sometimes though its just easier to use a tablespoon of flour or cornstarch. Falls into the 5% of my diet that’s not good. The other 4% being whiskey…

Alex
Alex
7 years 8 months ago

My favorite low-carb thickener is ThickenThin not/Starch. I found pure xanthan gum to be too slimy and coconut fiber too gritty.

Sometimes I make a quick barbecue sauce for venison steak by deglazing the pan with authentic Japanese mirin (sweet rice wine) and adding chipotle pepper powder. In this case, the chipotle acts as a thickener.

FoodRenegade
7 years 8 months ago
Coconut flour works well if you miss baked goods. You can use it to make all sorts of quick breads that have pretty decent textures — muffins, pancakes, etc. But it’s not a good thickener at all. I personally use a combination of arrowroot powder & reduction for most sauces. And I second Richard’s advice about making your own stock. If you slow cook it for 24-48 hours, it’s incredibly nutrient dense as all the minerals and vitamins leach out of the marrow in the bones. I would only add that it’s REALLY important to make stock from bones from… Read more »
Mike S
Mike S
7 years 8 months ago

I think FoodRenegade is correct about the coconut flour. It’s great for adding coconut flavor and can serve other purposes, but not very useful as a thickening agent (after all it’s just tiny shavings of coconut that are hardly more absorbant than a nut flour).

Her recommended combo of arrowroot flour and reduction is probably the best advice. That darn arrowroot’s so expensive you gotta make it stretch.

Ellen
Ellen
7 years 8 months ago

Yea, I’ll chime in too– coconut flour does not work well as a thickener.

A forum?!? Woohoo! Yippee!

Ellen
Ellen
7 years 8 months ago

Mark- when are you unveiling the new site?

Zen Frittata
7 years 8 months ago

If you like the taste, flax meal works very, very well.

Mark, I think you let the cat out of the bag too early.

Sara E.
Sara E.
7 years 8 months ago

Hello, I’ve been reading your blog for a few months. It’s very informative and I appreciate all your hard work to bring us this information.

Regarding the arrowroot being so expensive. It is very expensive purchased in small jars in the spice section. If you have a Whole Foods type store that sells in bulk it is much cheaper.

Cheers,
Sara

Donna
Donna
7 years 8 months ago

Less water is definitely a great way to thicken sauce. When i make a soup with meat,veggies, tomato paste works so well to thicken it up. I always cook my soups with V-8 and no water, adding tomato paste just gives it a bold taste, which i like.

Danielle T
7 years 8 months ago

useful post for those of us with wheat intolerance!

Paul E
Paul E
7 years 8 months ago

Gelatin,

Next time you are making a meat flavoured sauce throw in some bones and let them stew. the gelatin will thicken (its a protein as well) and the bone will enrichen the sauce

Sue
Sue
7 years 8 months ago

I think the coconut flour works fine but I make a roux out of it. My mum used to do this to thicken stews, casseroles all the time. She would always add paprika spice to it aswell. (You don’t have to add paprika).

Lauren B
7 years 8 months ago

Another vote for xanthan gum! I just blogged about thickening chocolate pudding with it. Going to link back to the post, Mark!

Trinkwasser
Trinkwasser
7 years 8 months ago

Great ideas all! Yes xanthan gum needs treating with respect, the result can resemble anything from recycled spittle to Araldite.

Good points about the peanut butter and coconut also, especially Thai-type recipes benefit: I get blocks of “creamed coconut” or solidified coconut milk which I grate up and which go well with hot chillies.

Be careful when buying duck fat, mispronounce it and you can get ejected from the shop . . .

DAR
7 years 8 months ago

I thicken sauces in my crockpot recipes with a little guar gum, puddings with glucomannan powder (Konjac flour) or chia seeds, and cook with coconut flour, flaxmeal, nut meals, and chia seeds.

Thankfully, there are a lot of very low carb things we can sub for grains. I’m a diabetic and my BGLs won’t handle them.

Jane
7 years 8 months ago
Kuzu root also works as a thickener agent. Kuzu root is made from kudzu and look like white clumpy powder. It is imported from Japan, I believe. It can be used to thicken like arrowroot and also has healing properties – it is alkalizing to the body. There is a great anti-stress formula that combines 2 tbsp kuzu, 1 cup apple juice (i know, not primal), and a smidge of vanilla extract. cook until thickened, stirring all the time. Swirl in 1 tbsp of tahini (primal!) and eat hot or cold. This may fall into the category of a decent… Read more »
Tanya Lopez
Tanya Lopez
7 years 8 months ago

Homemade stock, reduced, is a great thickener, and it’s very mineral-rich, plus the gelatin is very soothing on the digestive tract. It’s a great source of easily digestible calcium, plus the other minerals that have leached out of the bones.

Cherie
Cherie
7 years 3 months ago

ThickenThin not/Starch is a great product! Easy to use with great results. However, there are no instructions as far as how much to use in relation to the amount of liquid you have and how thick you want to get it so go easy and just add a bit at a time until you get the results you want. You also do not have to mix it with water first…you can just sprinkle on any liquid hot or cold.

Ann Coleman
Ann Coleman
7 years 25 days ago

Okra. Yeah, I know. Slimy, right? I spent 40 years arguing with my Dad about how disgusting Okra was, only to find out that I actually liked it. And if you slice it think (1/4 in) and add a small amount (like 1/4 cup to a 2 quart dish), it thickens very nicely. I tried it in my Thai green curry recipe and it was really wonderful. The flavor just seems to support and enrich the base flavor of the sauce and it thickens without simmering for an hour.

Zibi
6 years 8 months ago

Extremely helpful post and comments. I have just starting thinking about reducing carbs in my cooking. One of my first questions was what to use in place of corn starch… luckily I love coconut milk. Arrow root sounds interesting so I will look for that where I buy my bulk goods. This week I will also be making my first chicken stock. I love the idea of freezing it and using to prepare future sauces, Thanks Richard 🙂

VP
VP
6 years 8 months ago
I’m surprised that no one mentioned agar-agar. It is a common vegetarian alternative to gelatin, but it can be purchased in flake and powder forms and used to thicken soups, gelatins (Jell-O alternative?), jellies (homemade jellies with fresh fruit or alternative sweeteners, anyone?), and ice creams (probably great for non-custard ice creams that use minimal or artificial sweeteners). It comes from red algae, is almost 80% fiber, has a small amount of protein, and supplies a significant amount of iodine. The amount of thickening power depends on the amount of of agar added, but I’ve cooked with it, and I… Read more »
Lily Rowe
Lily Rowe
6 years 5 months ago

I agree that coconut flour is a total waste for thickening. I can’t wait to try some of these other options as my children have difficulty waiting for a reduction. Has anyone tried just adding packaged gelatin or is there a reason that’s a bad idea?

Astaldo
Astaldo
6 years 5 months ago

I’m surprised that nobody mentioned blood. It does thicken nicely, even if it’s usable only in dark sauces.

VP
VP
6 years 5 months ago
Ha! Blood WILL thicken things, but I worked for several years at a steakhouse where we would occasionally make special order dishes with blood, and I’ve made a lot of cajun food (sausages, in particular) that uses blood. Blood tends to get grainy and congeal, and most people find it revolting if it’s not done EXACTLY right. Plus, it separates after a short period of time (before you cook with it). So, I wouldn’t suggest blood, despite the iron, protein, and other useful nutrients that it supplies. On a completely different note, Richard mentioned sour cream a long time ago,… Read more »
ranthonyb34
ranthonyb34
6 years 5 months ago

I recently tried xantham gum myself, for a chicken stir fry (vice cornstarch). When I mixed it in with a cup of the soy sauce and other ingredients, I used half a teaspoon. This proved to be too much, and I had little pieces of soy sauce chewing gum on my hands. Actually it looked like pieces of prune. Xanthum Gum is expensive and potent, but it’s pure fiber and definitely works.

Laura
Laura
6 years 2 months ago

Update: ThickenThin not/Starch thickener has been discontinued by Manufacturer. I loved using this product. So sad.

Marc
Marc
5 years 10 months ago

Has anyone tried beef gelatine? Seems like an inexpensive and simple solution.

jabs
jabs
5 years 7 months ago

you can also buy glucomannan (same stuff that shirataki noodles are made of) in powdered form. It’s a little tough to get the hang of since is thickens SO much… But it works a lot like cornstarch as a thickener.

Start with VERY LITTLE in water!

Jeanmarie
5 years 7 months ago
Mark, I’ve had some success doing a cheese sauce with coconut flour. It’s pretty ad hoc so I don’t have a definite recipe yet, but in a heavy stainless 2-cup measuring cup (or small saucepan) I melt butter or ghee, stir in some coconut flour, cream, grated cheese, and Frontier brand nutritional yeast at the end. We’ve enjoyed it on broccoli etc. You can also stir in an egg yolk (being careful to temper it). The thing to remember about coconut flour is that a little goes a long way, it absorbs much more liquid than wheat flour does, so… Read more »
Jeanmarie
5 years 7 months ago

Oh, and I like a little almond butter in my cheese sauce as well. I have fun experimenting, am not so good about writing it down.

e-sil
e-sil
5 years 6 months ago
I use potato flour – which I notice hasn’t been mentioned at all in any of the posts. It thickens like flour, and doesn’t add flavor to the sauce/gravy. Specialty stores might carry it as it is used in some European breadmaking, but I make my own. Cook and mash potatoes (use water, not cream or butter if you need liquid), spread on a drying sheet and put in dehydrator (or spread on a cookie sheet and dry on low heat in oven with door slightly open). When dry, put thru the blender (or use mortar and pestal like I… Read more »
Jamie
Jamie
5 years 3 months ago

I am on the GAPS diet (similar to Paleo) and tonight I made sweedish meatballs. I made my own soy sauce and thickened the sauce to go over the meatballs using ground sesame seeds. It worked great and tastes amazing!

Steph
Steph
5 years 1 month ago

My sister is allergic to wheat, so we’ve been using arrowroot for at least 20 years. You mix it with a little water (or other cool liquid) and then pour it in the pan and stir. Works exactly the same as cornstarch. You can find it in the spice section of any supermarket.

Andrea
Andrea
5 years 1 month ago

Heylah 🙂 greatly informative site!
Further to thickeners; ever tried Kudzu root? Superb thickener NO CARBS! Plus many health benefits – can be found in a health shop…bon apetite 🙂

jeff
jeff
5 years 24 days ago

Canned pumpkin puree works great for thickening sauces if you don’t mind a pumpkin flavor

wpDiscuz