Low-Carb Thickeners

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Thickeners can be as varied as the dishes themselves. Here Hollandaise sauce.

avatar featureHi there! I’m trying something a little different at Your Lighter Side. You told me that you want to see more helpful “cooking lessons, substitutions and tips.”  This feature is meant to help with everything from cooking hacks, to kitchen replacements, to shortcuts and tips. I hope you like it! Please leave me a comment below and let me know what you’d like me to share next! Now let’s cut it up!

It’s so fun to verb out in the kitchen. Here are three I like in particular: Mash, Bake…Thicken

So what can you do when it comes to replacing flour in your soups for thickening, adding some absorbency to your baking, and making sure those mashed, pureed vegetables zip your bip–all without the glutens or higher-carb staples we used to use back in the day?

I am here to help with a few tips for easy substitutions based on your personal needs.

But first of all I’m going to clue you into a discovery I have made over time–and I hope it helps. Put clearly,

Gums are a hot mess.

I hate to be the bearer of grumpy gum tidings, but there’s no way around it. Xanthan, acacia, and guar, on their own, tend to be so particular and prissy that they have rendered many a food item inedible or unappetizing. Add too much or too little, and you’re messing with ingredients that you may have ruined now (if not your appetite). Adding to this, the gums aren’t that widely available, and are–I believe anyway–best left in commercial thickeners (I list one I like below) and not in your cupboards.

Want something easier to use and to find? Lucky you, because I have some answers. I even went a little spreadsheet nerd girl.

 

Dry Substitutes

dry starches

While wheat flour is the standard in baking, what’s pretty remarkable, however, is that  regular wheat flour requires 2-3 times the amount to thicken as either cornstarch or the arrowroot. In short, a little arrowroot goes a long way, and cornstarch, while not perfect, is inexpensive, is double the potency of flour for thickening, and is easy to find.

1 Tablespoon of wheat flour thickens the same as 0.5 Tbsp of cornstarch or the same as 1 tsp arrowroot

Chia seeds and flax seed meal are also useful, but since both tend to absorb and expand, the results depend on the recipe. I will, as an example, use chia and flax in brownies or cakes where I need added absorbency from a  solid (links below to those recipes), but I tend to avoid chia and flax seed in gravies, soups, or sauces, where the seeds are visual (and sometimes a little unappetizing). I save these primarily for baking.

Almond and coconut flours are also valid possibilities for thickening, providing your guests like the taste of coconut (coconut flour), or aren’t harboring nut allergies (nut flours). I am not typically thrilled with either in soups, roues or sauces, and typically relegate these to baking status as well.

Jamie’s Pick: Arrowroot for gravies, soups and where texture/appearance matters. It’s harder to locate, but a little goes a very long way. Double bag and freeze for long-lasting use.

Wet Substitutes

moist thickeners

Making a soup, thickening a puree, or pumping up a sauce? Consider giving these options a whirl.

Cream Cheese. While you’re going to add more calories in the form of fat to your soups, sauces, and mashed, pureed vegetables with cream cheese than you would with the dry, single ingredients, look at what you’re not adding to your dish: carbohydrates. In fact, the gums in cream cheese helps thicken not only the cream cheese, but the dish to which you add it. Protein is off the charts in this ingredient, too, for even greater staying power.

Sour Cream. Lower in calories, sour cream works wizardly wonders as an ingredient for thickening your moist sides, soups and sauces. It adds a bit of pep, too, so consider adding this wherever sour cream would be welcome, from your mashed cauliflower to your meatball soup.

Greek Yogurt. A thick, Greek yogurt is a terrific thickening agent, particularly in place of sour cream or where you need to add some zip to the dip.

Heavy Cream. In many soups and sauces, the heft of the cream, when cooked gently and reduced, thickens. I didn’t add this one to the spreadsheet, since typically you’re using more of it than a wee bit to thicken–you’re basing the entire base on the cream.

Egg yolks. Perfect for adding heft to egg drop soup, be careful to not cook the eggs if added to a hot soup or sauce, or they will curdle and harden. Each large egg yolk nets only about .75 carbohydrates and about 99 calories.

Jamie’s Pick: Cream Cheese. Though higher in calories, you can’t go wrong with an ingredient that already contains gums and has removed the guesswork. If you have to avoid dairy, I really like the idea of pureeing some root veggies  to thicken your base.

Commercial Substitutes

commercial thickeners

Making a soup, thickening a puree, or pumping up a sauce?

LC Thick’n Saucy. Since LC Foods is a site sponsor, I have reviewed this product and can attest to its efficacy in dishes, soups and sauces. A proprietary mix of tree, vegetable and other gums, a tsp will perform as well as a tablespoon of other flours. And while the price tag is a little spendier than you might be used to, each 3 ounce bag contains 36 servings.

 Jamie’s Pick: The LC-Thick’n Saucy. While there are other commercial thickeners on the market, this one is the one I like, only after ThicknThin/Not Starch, which, incidentally, isn’t sold anymore.

What should you look for in a thickener?

Cost. First and foremost, if you can’t afford it, it’s not much of an option for pantry stocking, now is it? That’s why I recommend cornstarch to so many as a viable option. It’s easy to use, comes in a large container, and it’s reasonably-priced, which means I can use it in more applications.

Ingredients. Are you allergic to any of the ingredients, or are these options you can knowingly use without any problems? As an example,  while I am allergic to wheat and soy, corn and arrowroot don’t bother me, making those flours an option. Be sure to check the labels so you’re not buying something that will knock you out.

Taste and Behavior. Make sure the ingredient you buy works with the recipe you’re making. If you’re mashing a vegetable, as an example, it makes more sense to go with dairy than with, say, tapioca pearls.

Ways I have incorporated different thickening agents:

My ultimate suggestion?

When it comes to thickening, a little time and patience (and evaporation/cooking reduction) help many foods thicken naturally without any added ingredients. And when you do add a thickener, remember, less is more.

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Comments

  1. really helpful info! Thanks for crunching all the numbers. This is such valuable info!

    • I am so glad this has helped! I have to consider all of these things when I develop recipes for the site, so being able to share that information is fun, too! It lends a little insight into why I do what I do.

  2. cindybeadlady says:

    Excellent and informative! You Rock! I sure miss Thick N Thin.. that was an amazing product. I tried to replace it with Xantham gum but that didn’t work very well. Cindy

  3. Thanks! This is great! I pinned for future reference.

  4. Wow! This IS great! Thanks, Jamie!

    Regards,
    Glad

  5. Lisa Hoag says:

    I love to cook and I started eating low carb several months ago. This is a great post – as it will help me convert some of my favorite recipes to low carb. Thank you!!! You have removed some of the guess work for me and my husband.

  6. Jenn Morandi says:

    This is just plain terrific, Jamie! Between the charts and the clearly worded explanations, I feel like I can make a good decision about what thickening agent to use when. Especially enlightening are the recipe examples that you use to illustrate you point about considering taste and texture when picking a thickener.
    Thanks, as always, for your guidance!
    Jenn :)

  7. Thanks for these. Definitely a keeper.
    Jamie have you seen the food documentary Forks over knives about eating whole and plant based foods with no meat and no eggs cheeses. Just wondered your thoughts about this.
    Thanks again for a great site!

    • Hi there! I have seen it, but I am a skeptic. I will continue to use eggs and dairy, and if I didn’t, it would be due to food allergies, but not to that documentary. I am not a believer in the China Study based on other research I’ve read.

  8. Do you have any experience with methyl cellulose? JOS

  9. christineshomecreations says:

    this is GREAT! thank you for this helpful info! I am gonna have to get out there and buy a few new things to try! Thank you! :)

  10. Thanks for this Jamie!

  11. Jamie, Could there be a typo here about cornstarch? First, it says that cornstarch is double the potency of flour, then it says 1 T. flour thickens the same as 1 T. cornstarch.
    Thanks so much for this information.

  12. Janice Freeman says:

    Thank you, darlin’

  13. lisa biddle says:

    Thanks for the info! Very helpful!

  14. Jamie, this is valuable information for me. Thanks so much for researching these thickeners. I have been pretty confused about them, and trepidacious about using any of them. I feel so enlightened now! You rule!

    • I am so glad I can help! I always assume what I have learned over the years is/was common knowledge, and I hate boring people. Knowing this is helpful helps me to slow down and take inventory of what I know so that I can pass it along.

  15. For those who can’t do grains *or* nuts for whatever reason and for recipes where the other thickeners wouldn’t be the first choice, I’ll put here my technique that has worked very well with xanthan gum. Put it in a small-holed saltshaker, and whisk it in. I don’t measure it, but if the recipe says 1T flour, I use under a teaspoon, knowing from experience about what a 1/2 teaspoon looks like. I shake in about 1/2 of what I think I need, whisking vigorously, and then wait about 2-3 minutes to see how thick it’s getting. If it isn’t thick enough, I whisk in about 1/2 of what I think it will take, and then wait again. When I first started using it, I would either get way too much and end up with Play-dough, or I’d use way too little and end up with something slightly thicker than water. I gradually learned to do it this way, and it does work.

  16. After a year of low-carbing, I still haven’t figured out how to replace 3/4 c. Bisquick in a zucchini/cheese casserole that is a family favorite. I tried using flax meal, but it was awful! If I use coconut flour, should I add some baking powder or baking soda? If so, how much and how much coconut flour? Thanks so much for all the help — everyday!

    • Hi there! I am a fan of baking soda and baking powder, absolutely. I have not yet made a baking mix because I am so picky that it’s taken me some time. I have herd good things about CarbQuick? I think that’s the one, but I’m not 100% sure. It contains soy, and it will go rancid in the cupboards, but others seem to really enjoy it.

  17. Jamie, are you familiar with Dixie Diner’s Thick It Up? I’m wondering how it might compare to the LC Thick’n Saucy. The ingredients are: Locust bean (and/or tara), guar, acacia, xanthan gums. I still have some of the Thicken Thin not/starch, and I suspect the Dixie Diner product will behave similarly. I use a combo of cream cheese and Thicken Thin to avoid getting the slimy mouth feel that can come from too much Thicken Thin. In any event, I will have to find a replacement for Thicken Thin eventually. I’d be interested to hear if you or any of your followers have tried Thick It Up and how it might compare with Thick’n Saucy. Thanks for yet again an extremely helpful post!

    • Hi, Pam! I have never used the other product, no. Truth be told, I wouldn’t have tried the LC brand had it not been sent to me, but I’d buy it if I needed a replacement for ThicknThin. I am really cheap–but I have to be in order to offer the best value for readers. We can’t all afford to run about ordering products online–especially not in this economy. So, for those reasons, I typically stick to what can be found locally, and when it can’t be, then I’m willing to make a recommendation based on personal experience.

      I hope that helps!

  18. Very much, thanks :-)

  19. I have had GREAT success in making my faux-mashed potatoes (cauliflower) a good texture (it’s usually a little too soft/liquid). I add a bit (teaspoon-tablespoon?) of GROUND flax seed before a final heating. It really absorbs the liquid and gives them some ‘heft’. And it doesn’t change the flavor. I even use this in my meatloaf with good success.

    • I love flax seed meal in meatloaf! You’re saying it’s not off-putting in the mashed cauliflower? If so, terrific!

    • I love cauliflower puree also. I found that if you line a colander wiith several layers of paper towel and pour in the puree a lot of the water will come out. You have to let it sit for 20 minutes or so, but it gets to be the actual teture of mashed potatoes. It doesn’t stitck to the paper towels. Make sure to put the colander over a bigger bowl or in the sink: You will be surprised at how much extr water comes out.

      • What an amazing tip, June! I always thought the cauliflower would stick to the paper towel, because that’s the kind of thing that might typically happen to me.

        I am going to try this next time! Thanks for the heads up.

  20. Have you tried Carbquik? Can only get online and costs a lot but you get a 3 lb box! I love it.

  21. I use konjac powder, a little bit goes a long way.

  22. Karin Clemetson says:

    I, too, use konjac powder (glucomannan). Like Vikki says, a little goes a long way, and it is ZERO carb, ZERO calories. Great for thickening soups, sauces, gravies, smoothies, and salad dressings.

  23. I have a comment and a question :)

    Comment: Recently I threw a basket (pint size I imagine) of blueberries into the blender because I needed to use them up, I was planning on a smoothie, just straight blueberries nothing else. I poured them into a glass and while pretty, they tasted kinda … gross. So I planned to head back to the kitchen adding some yoghurt or something, but I was watching my fav tv show and just figured I’d wait until later. We’ll those blueberries thickened up into a gloopy gloppy solid mess. It was like they were jello and they stayed that way. I noticed some water at the bottom of the glass, but overall … perhaps a thickening agent for something??

    So my question was about chia seeds. Can you grind them up? I read how good they are for you packed full of nutrients and protein, I’m wondering if they could be ground and used that way as thickeners. I noticed you mentioned they are unappetizing so just curious how you were using them. :)

    Love your site btw, it’s like an update version of all those bad low carb recipes, I am very impressed and LOVING IT! My appreciation for your time is truly endless!

    • Hi! Thank you so much for being so sweet! I also love reading about your blueberry experiment. A good friend also told me about agar agar and I am going to goof with that, too.

      I am positive you could grind chia seeds and they would still gel. The liquid would still be black, since the chia look like poppy seeds–but anywhere that’s not an issue, I think they are so much fun!

    • I found out this fall that cranberries will do the same thing, and they are super-low carb too! Very sour, though, so you do need to add some sweetener of some kind. I tried Truvia and it didn’t effect the gelling. What you do is put a bunch of raw cranberries in a small pan and bring them to a boil. They will pop open, and they will gel as they cool. I don’t know if it’s the addition of oranges in most relish recipes that prevent the gelling so that the addition of gelatin is necessary or not? I added Truvia and RealOrange to make our cranberry relish, with no gelatin because I saw the cranberries were already gelling and I lost our gelatin in the move. :-)

  24. Jamie Ramirez says:

    I’ve noticed there are multiple brands of coconut flour, almond flour, and peanut flour…what brand do you recommend?

    • Hi, Jamie! I just buy whatever coconut flour I can find. Right now I have the bagged Vitamin Cottage Store brand. Per the peanut flour, that becomes more an issue of how defatted you want to go. I would just buy whatever you can find– or make your own by processing roasted, unsalted peanuts to a powder.

  25. I just used the Dixie Diner yesterday to give a potato-y feel to my mashed chayote squash. I steamed 2 chayote, cubed, then mashed, then squeezed the pulp in a flour sack towel til I had pulp the size of a tennis ball. In a bowl, i loosened the pulp up with a fork and sprinkled 1 tsp of Thick It Up over the mash and then mixed well. Then I added my dressing and eggs and cheese and onion to my “potato” salad and put in the fridge overnight to marry the flavours. This morning, my salad looks like potato/egg salad and the texture is remarkably close to potato salad texture. There is not even any extra liquid in the bottom which I really was expecting because of the vast(almost 1 cup) of liquid that I squeezed out of the chayotes. I haven’t used Thick It Up for any gravy or sauce but it works really well to give more body to watery veg like chayote or probably even cauliflower and zucchini. I will probably try using it to add to my zucchini latkes or even my cauliflower casseroles which tend to release a lot of water.

  26. I have used Konjac powder too but noticed that the texture is just the slightest bit slimy and stringy…but maybe I’m too picky. I hate certain textures.

  27. Tracey re: cranberry sauce, I’m assuming you put some liquid in the pan with the cranberries to boil? Water? How much? thanks

  28. Rani Merens says:

    I was disappointed in your article because I was hoping to find a comparison of the various low-carb products on the market, not a comparison of the carby stuff that I haven’t touched in 18 years or the TnT but limited foods like egg yolks, cream cheese, and cream. I miss ThicknThin (not/Starch) and was hoping to see a comparison of konjac flour, Dixie Diner Thick-It-Up, LC Thick n Saucy and his other thickening products. Thank you to posters who have tried these! There are also products not made for what we want, but to thicken liquids for people who have difficulty swallowing. I don’t have that problem but I have MS and know someone else whose MS has affected her ability to swallow. There’s a product called SimplyThick that sounds like xanthan gum syrup that you just stir in to liquid of any temp and it just thickens it up. Anyway, thanks for the springboard article and everyone’s contributions.

    P.S. The thing in blueberries and cranberries that thickens is pectin. Anyone tried using canning pectin?

  29. Bettina Morton says:

    I came to this site to see if ground flax seed would work as a thickener and found out that it does. I would normally use coconut flour to thicken the sauce, but only had ground flax seed available that wasn’t a starch or wheat. I used the flax seed to thicken sweet & sour sauce for a chicken stir fry. The flax seeds looked much like sesame seeds, which worked with this dish. I have to experiment with quantities of ingredients, but it was tasty. Thank you for your information.

  30. Don Largo says:

    Nice site, but I do have one little nit-picky criticism to make: You really ought to specify units in your otherwise excel-lent chart. I assume, for example, that carbs are listed in grams despite the general public’s aversion to the metric system.

    Cranberries, by the way, are high in pectin which is helpful for getting them to thicken.

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