Food Thickeners: A Beginner's Guide - Cape Crystal Brands

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Have you ever wondered how your favorite sauces, soups, puddings, and pies achieve their smooth and creamy texture? How do they maintain their thickness and richness without becoming too runny or watery? The answer is found in the fascinating world of food thickeners - those magical ingredients that add body, stability, and viscosity to our dishes. But what exactly are food thickeners, and how do they work their magic? In this post, we'll delve into the basics of food thickening agents, covering everything from their various types and sources to their many uses and advantages. Whether you're a passionate home cook or a professional chef, you'll discover how food thickeners can elevate your culinary creations from average to exceptional. So, let's get started!

Key Takeaways

  • Food thickeners are ingredients that add thickness, stability, and viscosity to liquid mixtures without changing their taste, color, or aroma.
  • Food thickeners can be used to improve the texture and mouthfeel of sauces, soups, puddings, desserts, and other foods.
  • Food thickeners work by trapping water or other liquids in a network of molecules, creating different degrees of thickness depending on the type and amount of thickener used.
  • There are various types of food thickeners, such as starch-based, protein-based, hydrocolloid-based, and fat-based thickeners, each with their own advantages and disadvantages.
  • Food thickeners can be derived from natural or synthetic sources, such as plants, animals, algae, bacteria, or chemicals.
  • Food thickeners have many benefits, such as enhancing the flavor and appearance of foods, preventing separation or curdling, extending shelf life, and adding nutritional value.
  • Food thickeners also have some drawbacks, such as altering the original texture or consistency of foods, causing allergic reactions or digestive issues, or affecting the absorption of nutrients or medications.

Food thickeners should be used with caution and moderation, following the instructions and measurements carefully to avoid over-thickening or under-thickening. They should also be stored properly to prevent spoilage or contamination.

What are Food Thickeners?

Food thickeners are a valuable ingredient that can enhance your culinary creations. They are substances that can increase the thickness or viscosity of a liquid mixture without altering its taste, color, or aroma. You can use food thickeners to thicken sauces, soups, gravies, custards, puddings, and desserts. They can also help improve the texture and mouthfeel of foods like yogurt, ice cream, jams, and jellies. By adding food thickeners to your recipes, you can achieve a smooth and creamy texture that will take your dishes to the next level.

How does it work?

Food thickeners work by forming a network of molecules that trap water or other liquids in the mixture. Depending on the type and amount of thickener used, the resulting product can have different degrees of thickness, from thin and pourable to thick and spoonable. Some thickeners also have other functions, such as stabilizing, emulsifying, gelling, or binding ingredients together.

What are the Types of Food Thickeners?

There are many types of food thickeners available in the market, each with its characteristics and applications. Some of the most common ones are:

Starch-based thickeners:

These are derived from plants that store starch in their roots, seeds, or grains. Examples include cornstarch, potato starch, tapioca starch, rice flour, wheat flour, arrowroot powder, and sago. Starch-based thickeners are widely used for thickening sauces, soups, gravies, puddings, pies, and cakes. They are easy to use and inexpensive but require heat and stirring to activate. They also tend to lose their thickening power over time or when frozen or reheated.

Protein-based thickeners:

These are derived from animal or plant sources that contain protein. Examples include gelatin, collagen, egg whites, milk proteins (casein and whey), soy protein isolate, and xanthan gum. Protein-based thickeners are used for thickening and gelling foods, such as jellies, marshmallows, mousses, custards, and whipped cream. They are also used for stabilizing and emulsifying foods, such as mayonnaise, salad dressings, and ice cream. Protein-based thickeners vary in their properties and requirements, depending on the source and processing method. Some need heat or acid to activate, while others need cold or alkaline conditions. Some are sensitive to enzymes or salts, while others are resistant to them.

Hydrocolloid-based thickeners:

These are derived from plants or microorganisms that produce polysaccharides or gums. Examples include agar agar, carrageenan, pectin, guar gum, locust bean gum, and alginate. Hydrocolloid-based thickeners are used for thickening and gelling foods, such as jams, fruit spreads, candies, sauces, and desserts. They are also used for stabilizing and emulsifying foods, such as dairy products, beverages, and dressings. Hydrocolloid-based thickeners have different properties and applications, depending on the source and structure of the polysaccharide. Some need heat or sugar to activate, while others need calcium or acid. Some form firm and brittle gels, while others form soft and elastic gels.

Fat-based thickeners:

 These are derived from animal or plant sources that contain fat. Examples include butter, oil, lard, margarine, shortening, and cream. Fat-based thickeners are used for thickening and enriching foods, such as sauces, soups, gravies, pastries, and pies. They are also used for creating emulsions and foams, such as hollandaise sauce, mayonnaise, whipped cream, and buttercream. Fat-based thickeners work by coating the liquid molecules with a layer of fat, preventing them from flowing freely. They also add flavor and richness to the food.

 

How to Use Food Thickeners?

The use of food thickeners depends on the type of thickener and the desired result. Here are some general tips and guidelines for using food thickeners:

Choose the right thickener for your recipe. Consider the ingredients, the cooking method, the storage conditions, and the final texture and flavor of the food.

Measure the amount of thickener carefully. Too much or too little thickener can affect the quality and consistency of the food. Follow the instructions on the package or use a conversion chart to determine the correct amount of thickener for your recipe.

Dissolve or hydrate the thickener properly. Some thickeners need to be dissolved in cold water before adding to the hot liquid, while others need to be sprinkled directly into the boiling liquid. Some thickeners need to be hydrated in cold water for a certain time before using them. Make sure to follow the directions on the package or use a whisk or blender to avoid lumps.

Cook or cool the thickened food as needed. Some thickeners need to be cooked for a certain time or temperature to activate their thickening power, while others need to be cooled or refrigerated to set. Some thickeners can lose their effectiveness if overcooked or frozen. Make sure to follow the directions on the package or adjust the cooking or cooling time accordingly.

Enjoy your thickened food! Serve your food hot or cold as desired. You can also add seasonings, herbs, spices, or other ingredients to enhance the flavor and appearance of your food. Be creative and experiment with different combinations of thickeners and foods.

Important food thickeners you should have:

Sodium Alginate Powder:

This is a natural gum extracted from brown seaweed that can form a gel when mixed with calcium. It is used as a thickener, stabilizer, and emulsifier in food, such as ice cream, salad dressing, cheese, or pudding. It can also be used to make spherification, a technique that creates liquid-filled spheres that burst in the mouth.

You can use sodium alginate powder to make fruit caviar, a technique that creates small spheres of fruit juice that burst in the mouth.

Faux caviar

Fruit caviar:

Ingredients:

Steps:

  1. Dissolve the sodium alginate powder in the fruit juice using a blender or a hand mixer.
  2. Refrigerate the mixture for at least 15 minutes to remove any air bubbles.
  3. Dissolve the calcium chloride in the water in a large bowl.
  4. Using a syringe, dropper, or spoon, drop small amounts of the fruit juice mixture into the calcium chloride solution. The drops will form spheres as they react with the calcium.
  5. Let the spheres sit in the solution for about a minute, then gently scoop them out with a slotted spoon and rinse them with water.
  6. Enjoy your fruit caviar as a snack or a garnish.

Kappa Carrageenan Powder:

This is a natural gum extracted from red seaweed that can form a firm and brittle gel when mixed with potassium. It is used as a gelling agent, stabilizer, and thickener in food, such as dairy products, meat products, desserts, or sauces. It can also be used to make vegan cheese or marshmallows.

You can use kappa carrageenan powder to make vegan cheese, a technique that creates firm and meltable cheese from plant-based ingredients.

Homemade vegan cheese

Vegan cheese

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup raw cashews, soaked and drained
  • 1/4 cup nutritional yeast
  • 2 tbsp tapioca starch
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp garlic powder
  • 1/4 tsp onion powder
  • 1/4 tsp turmeric
  • 1/4 tsp smoked paprika
  • 1.5 tbsp kappa carrageenan powder
  • 150 ml boiling water

Steps:

  1. Add all the ingredients except the kappa carrageenan powder and the boiling water to a blender and blend until smooth.
  2. Add the kappa carrageenan powder and blend again until well combined.
  3. Working quickly, transfer the mixture to a medium saucepan and place over low heat. Heat the mixture, whisking constantly, until it’s smooth, glossy, and stretchy like melted mozzarella.
  4. Pour the mixture into a lightly greased loaf tin or mold and refrigerate until set, about an hour.
  5. Slice, grate, or melt your vegan cheese as desired.

Tara Gum Powder - Non-GMO / Gluten-Free / Vegan / Kosher:

This is a natural gum extracted from the seeds of the Tara tree that can increase the viscosity and stability of food. It is used as a thickener, stabilizer, and emulsifier in food, such as ice cream, yogurt, baked goods, or soups. It can also be used to improve the texture and mouthfeel of food.

You can use Tara gum powder to make vegan ice cream, a technique that creates a creamy and smooth ice cream from coconut milk.

Vegan vanilla ice cream

Vegan ice cream

Ingredients:

  • 2 cans of full-fat coconut milk
  • 1/2 cup maple syrup or agave nectar
  • Pinch of salt
  • Vanilla extract or other flavorings of your choice
  • 2 tsp Tara gum powder

Steps:

  1. In a blender, combine one can of coconut milk, maple syrup or agave nectar, salt, vanilla extract or other flavorings, and Tara gum powder. Blend until smooth and frothy.
  2. Transfer the mixture to a saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. Reduce the heat and simmer for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently, until slightly thickened.
  3. Remove from heat and whisk in the remaining can of coconut milk. Transfer to a bowl and refrigerate until completely chilled, at least four hours or overnight.
  4. Churn the mixture in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Transfer to an airtight container and freeze until firm, about two hours.

Agar Agar Powder- Vegan- Gelling- Thickening:

This is a natural gum extracted from red seaweed that can form a firm and clear gel when heated and cooled. It is used as a gelling agent, thickener, and stabilizer in food, such as jelly, custard, cake, or candy. It can also be used to make vegan gelatin or cheese.

You can use agar agar powder to make vegan jelly, a technique that creates a firm and clear jelly from fruit juice.

Citrus jelly

Vegan jelly

Ingredients:

  • 4 cups of fruit juice of your choice
  • 2 tbsp agar agar powder
  • Sugar or sweetener of your choice, optional

Steps:

  1. In a small bowl, whisk together the agar agar powder and 1/4 cup of the fruit juice until well combined. Set aside.
  2. In a large saucepan, bring the remaining fruit juice to a boil over high heat. If using sugar or sweetener, add it to taste and stir to dissolve.
  3. Reduce the heat and whisk in the agar agar mixture. Simmer for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until slightly thickened.
  4. Pour the mixture into a baking dish or mold and refrigerate until set, about an hour.
  5. Cut into pieces or unmold your vegan jelly and enjoy.

Potassium Alginate - Used as a thickener in the food industry:

This is a natural gum derived from sodium alginate by replacing sodium with potassium. It is used as a thickener, stabilizer, and emulsifier in food, such as sauces, dressings, jams, or beverages. It can also be used to make edible films or coatings.

You can use potassium alginate to make edible films or coatings, a technique that creates thin and flexible sheets of food that can be used as wrappers or decorations.

Edible films, coatings

Ingredients:

  • 1/4 cup potassium alginate
  • 2 cups water
  • Food coloring or flavoring of your choice, optional

Steps:

  1. In a blender, combine the potassium alginate, water, food coloring, or flavoring if using, and blend until smooth and frothy.
  2. Transfer the mixture to a saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. Reduce the heat and simmer for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently, until slightly thickened.
  3. Remove from heat and let it cool slightly.
  4. Spread the mixture thinly and evenly over a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or a silicone mat. You can use a spatula or a pastry bag to create different shapes or patterns.
  5. Let it dry completely at room temperature or in an oven at low heat, for about an hour.
  6. Peel off your edible films or coatings and use them as desired.

Xanthan Gum Thickening Food Powder:

This is a natural gum produced by the fermentation of sugar by bacteria. It is used as a thickener, stabilizer, and emulsifier in food, such as gluten-free baked goods, salad dressings, sauces, or soups. It can also be used to improve the texture and consistency of food.

You can use xanthan gum powder to make gluten-free bread, a technique that creates soft and fluffy bread from gluten-free flour.

Glute-free breads

Gluten-free bread created using xanthan gum.

Ingredients:

  • 3 cups gluten-free all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 2 tsp instant yeast
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp xanthan gum powder
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/4 cup warm water
  • 3 eggs

Steps:

  1. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, yeast, salt, and xanthan gum powder until well combined.
  2. In a small bowl, whisk together the oil, water, and eggs until well combined.
  3. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and mix with a wooden spoon or an electric mixer until a smooth and sticky dough forms.
  4. Transfer the dough to a lightly greased loaf pan and smooth the top with a wet spatula. Cover with plastic wrap and let it rise in a warm place for about an hour or until doubled in size.
  5. Preheat oven to 180°C (350°F) and bake for about 35 minutes or until golden and cooked through.
  6. Let it cool slightly in the pan before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.

Propylene Glycol Alginate (PGA) | Emulsifier- Stabilizer-Thickener:

This is a modified gum derived from alginic acid by adding propylene glycol groups. It is used as an emulsifier, stabilizer, and thickener in food, such as beer, wine, dairy products, or dressings. It can also be used to prevent foaming or crystallization of food.

You can use propylene glycol alginate to make beer foam, a technique that creates a stable and creamy foam on top of the beer.

Beer Foam

Beer foam

Ingredients:

  • A bottle of beer of your choice
  • A pinch of propylene glycol alginate
  • A blender or a hand mixer

Steps:

  1. Pour about half of the beer into a blender or a large bowl. Add the propylene glycol alginate and blend or whisk until frothy.
  2. Pour the remaining beer into a glass and top with the foam. Enjoy your beer with a nice head.

Konjac Gum (glucomannan powder):

This is a natural gum extracted from the root of the konjac plant that can absorb water and form a gel. It is used as a thickener, stabilizer, and gelling agent in food, such as noodles, jelly, or desserts. It can also be used to aid weight loss or lower cholesterol levels.

You can use konjac gum to make shirataki noodles, a technique that creates low-calorie and high-fiber noodles from konjac root.

Shirataki noodles

Shirataki noodles

Ingredients:

  • A packet of konjac gum
  • Water
  • A pot of boiling water
  • A colander

Steps:

  1. Cut open the packet of konjac gum and drain the liquid. Rinse the konjac gum under cold water to remove any smell or taste.
  2. Cut the konjac gum into thin strips or use a spiralizer to create noodle shapes.
  3. Add the konjac noodles to a pot of boiling water and cook for about two minutes or until tender.
  4. Drain the noodles in a colander and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking process.
  5. Use the shirataki noodles as a substitute for regular noodles in your favorite dishes.

Pectin – Amidated - Low Methoxyl:

 This is a modified gum derived from pectin by reducing the methoxyl groups and adding amide groups. It is used as a gelling agent in food that can form a gel at low pH and high calcium levels. It is used in food such as jams, jellies, fruit preparations, or confectionery.

You can use pectin amidated low methoxyl to make vegan marshmallows, a technique that creates fluffy and sweet marshmallows from plant-based ingredients.

Vegan marshmellows

Vegan marshmallows

Ingredients:

  • 1/4 cup water
  • 2 tbsp pectin amidated low methoxyl
  • 1/4 tsp cream of tartar
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup light corn syrup
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • Powdered sugar for dusting

Steps:

  1. In a small bowl, whisk together the water, pectin amidated low methoxyl, and cream of tartar until well combined. Set aside.
  2. In a small saucepan, combine the sugar, corn syrup, and water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. Cook until the mixture reaches 115°C (240°F) on a candy thermometer.
  3. Remove from heat and carefully pour the hot syrup into the bowl with the pectin mixture. Using an electric mixer, beat on high speed for about 10 minutes or until thick and glossy. Add the vanilla extract and beat for another minute.
  4. Transfer the mixture to a baking dish lined with parchment paper and dusted with powdered sugar. Smooth the top with a wet spatula and dust with more powdered sugar. Refrigerate until set, about an hour.
  5. Cut into pieces and enjoy your vegan marshmallows.

Maltodextrin - Energy Booster:

This is a processed starch that can be derived from corn, rice, potato, or wheat. It is used as a sweetener, filler, or bulking agent in food such as sports drinks, energy bars, snacks, or sauces. It can also be used to provide energy or enhance the flavor of food.

You can use maltodextrin to make powdered oil, a technique that creates a dry and powdery form of oil that can be used as a garnish or a seasoning.

Powdered oil

Powdered oil

Ingredients:

  • 1/4 cup oil of your choice
  • 1/4 cup maltodextrin
  • A blender or a food processor

Steps:

  1. In a blender or a food processor, combine the oil and maltodextrin and blend until well combined and crumbly.
  2. Transfer the mixture to an airtight container and store it in a cool and dry place.
  3. Use the powdered oil as desired.

Conclusion

Food thickeners are amazing ingredients that can make your food more delicious and satisfying. They can help you create smooth and creamy sauces, soups, gravies, puddings, pies, and more. They can also help you improve the texture and mouthfeel of foods, such as yogurt, ice cream, jams, and jellies. They can also help you stabilize and emulsify foods, such as mayonnaise, salad dressings, and ice cream.

The use of food thickeners is easy and simple. You just need to choose the right thickener for your recipe, measure the amount of thickener carefully, dissolve or hydrate the thickener properly, cook or cool the thickened food as needed, and enjoy your thickened food!

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