If you're looking to avoid using refined flour as a thickening agent, you've got plenty of alternatives. For some home cooks, it may be a matter of avoiding the ingredient because of gluten intolerance. And while the carb count for the small amount of flour is negligible, says Amy Shapiro, RD and founder of Real Nutrition, some folks may want to swap it for something healthier.
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Fortunately, making a roux from all-purpose flour and butter is no longer the default option when it comes to thickening up sauces and gravies. "There are a lot of different things you can try to get around using white flour," Palak Patel, a chef at the Institute of Culinary Education, tells LIVESTRONG.com. And, you can find nearly all of these options at your local grocery shop — no elaborate hunt required.
Not to mention, some flour substitutes do an even better job as a thickener, and you won't have to use as much. Most starches are also gluten-free and perfect for those with restricted diets. Try these six easy-to-find thickening agents and learn how to use them while cooking.
Tapioca starch, also called tapioca flour, is a sweet, gluten- and wheat-free powder. When baking fruit pies, you might opt for instant tapioca pearls or beads. The juice that seeps out from the cooked fruits will be absorbed by the pearls, creating a thick sauce.
Tapioca pearls are also good for gravies. Some suggest against using instant tapioca pearls because it may end up leaving little globs in your recipe, but ultimately, it's up to your flavor and texture preferences. You'll want to use small pearls rather than large ones to avoid having unabsorbed pieces of tapioca in your dish.
Cornstarch is a conventional, all-purpose and gluten-free choice used in everything from sauces to gravies to desserts. It comes from corn, so it's plant-based and gluten-free, notes Shapiro.
Cornstarch lends baked goods a soft texture and added structure. For sauces and gravies, do not add cornstarch directly to the hot liquid or it will clump and taste raw. Instead, create a slurry by mixing it with a bit of cold water then add the mixture little by little to the hot liquid. Cornstarch also does not mix well with acidic ingredients like wine or sour cream. If your recipe calls for these, using arrowroot as a thickener would be a better choice.
Arrowroot is a gluten-free, virtually tasteless option that is best used for non-dairy-based sauces. As the name implies, it's a tropical root that's been dried and pulsed into a flour, says Patel.
Choose arrowroot if you'll be freezing a sauce for later use since it won't break down during the freezing or thawing processes. As with cornstarch, you'll want to create a slurry first, then add the mixture to any hot liquid. Do not overheat arrowroot during the cooking process or it will lose its thickening agent properties. Use this option for foods that will be cooked on a low temperature and promptly removed from the heat.
The drawbacks for arrowroot are its price and availability. You might end up paying more for arrowroot than some of the other options on this list and it may not be as easy to find.
Not to be confused with potato flour, potato starch is a clear, tasteless and gluten-free powder with a low fat content. It is also the only starch acceptable to use during Passover since it's not grain-based. Potato starch works well in sauces, soups and stews. Even though it can withstand higher temperatures during cooking, potato starch should not be used in recipes that require them to reach a boiling point. If used in baking, potato starch is a great moisture-absorber resulting in spongier, lighter cakes.
This vegan thickening agent is a good binder, and an excellent alternative to all-purpose flour, says Patel. Plus, flaxseeds are a rich source of plant-based omega-3 fatty acids called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) that boast potential heart-disease fighting benefits, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
If you're whipping up a roux, you can sub in flaxseed in place of all-purpose flour. Just use twice as much flaxseed as you would flour, and stir constantly to avoid burning the roux. Purchase it ground up, or do it yourself using your coffee grinder or food processor.
Chia seeds are another healthy alternative to all-purpose flour that's easy to find in grocery and health food stores, points out Patel. And, like flaxseeds, they're a solid source of ALA, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Mix one-third of a cup of chia seeds with two cups of water for several minutes to create a gel that can be used to thicken sauces, puddings or dips, recommends the Cleveland Clinic.