Marks Daily Apple
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16 Mar

Dear Mark: Low-Carb Sauce Thickeners

sauceDear 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?

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. 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.

    ranthonyb34 wrote on June 28th, 2010
  2. Update: ThickenThin not/Starch thickener has been discontinued by Manufacturer. I loved using this product. So sad.

    Laura wrote on September 27th, 2010
  3. Has anyone tried beef gelatine? Seems like an inexpensive and simple solution.

    Marc wrote on January 9th, 2011
  4. 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!

    jabs wrote on April 11th, 2011
  5. 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 think it terms of a spoonful or so to start. And if you bake with it you need egg to hold it together. I’ve also used guar and xantham gums in making gluten-free crackers. They seem to help the dough hold together somewhat but aren’t as powerful as in a sauce.

    Jeanmarie wrote on April 17th, 2011
    • 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.

      Jeanmarie wrote on April 17th, 2011
  6. 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 do) until powdered. Will keep pretty much indefinately in an airtight jar in the cupboard – just like flour. Pumpkin powder, made the same way, is also good.

    e-sil wrote on May 26th, 2011
  7. 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!

    Jamie wrote on August 14th, 2011
  8. 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.

    Steph wrote on October 6th, 2011
  9. 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 :)

    Andrea wrote on October 12th, 2011
  10. Canned pumpkin puree works great for thickening sauces if you don’t mind a pumpkin flavor

    jeff wrote on November 10th, 2011
  11. just made a chicken curry with marcona almonds to thicken it. Put it in the blender with ginger-garlic-tomato.

    umi963 wrote on May 11th, 2012
  12. Arrowroot has the same carbohydrate count as corn starch

    Tim wrote on May 21st, 2012
    • I think the issue is not the carb count (since you use so little of it), but that arrowroot is made from an herb vs. cornstarch from a grain.

      Linda wrote on September 16th, 2012
  13. I’ve just recently started to use a little arrowroot while making homemade yogurt…seems to thicken it nicely.

    JheN wrote on November 3rd, 2012
  14. Help! I’m trying to do the Primal diet. I’ve been doing it for 2 weeks and have had some success. Prior to starting the diet, I was drinking 3 Starbucks bottled Frappucinos a day (I know – please don’t preach). I was able to cut it down to one a day but really want to get off of them completely. I’ve googled healthy recipes for them, but the texture is always off. Do you think adding arrowroot or pectin would thicken the iced frappucinos? Would this be a healthy alternative? I cannot sacrifice the fraps completely because I crave the caffeine. Thanks for any suggestions.

    Laura wrote on April 7th, 2013
    • You need to whip some cream, baby! That’s how you get a frap.

      brittany wrote on March 27th, 2014
  15. the thick and thin for making gravies and sauces thicker is no longer available on the market. I searched and searched and that was what i finally found out. No longer made.

    kitty newton wrote on September 12th, 2013
  16. Hi
    I use potato flour. It is a gluten free version of maisenna but made of potato. Like Aquevit! (I´m from Norway and the potato is used for all kinds of stuff) I used potato flour instead of arrowroot when I baked a pumpkin bread and when I was making brown sause for the lamb roast. Good results.

    Trine

    Trine wrote on October 4th, 2013
  17. I use roasted onions for savory gravies. 2 large sweet (Vidalia) in 2 cups of bone broth/water dilution to taste.

    Lisa wrote on December 25th, 2013
  18. I need a thickener for gluten-free friends! I tried coconut flour once as a thickener; it thickened my stir-fry but my husband would not eat it due to the gritty texture. I strongly suggest NOT using coconut flour.

    Jen wrote on May 7th, 2014
  19. I have made vegan gravies that call for almonds or cashews and process together until creamy in blender; then cook and you will have a nice thick gravy consistency… add tamari for a nice brown color, onions, garlic, herbs, etc for flavor! Awesome!!

    Linda wrote on July 3rd, 2014
  20. Where did these cave folks get their processed xanthan and guar gum? Amazon, or …?

    Right.

    Sonerila wrote on November 12th, 2014

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