The plot (and the stew) thickens…

September 20, 2019 6:28 am Published by 1 Comment

There comes a time in every home-cook’s life when a sauce ends up being a bit of a let-down: weak, thin and watery, rather than the rich, thick, gloopy, flavoursome liquid promised by the recipe. Maybe you forgot a vital ingredient, or cooked it too quickly, or have simply run out of time to let it reduce down?

How are you going to thicken your sauce?

Whatever the reason, it’s important to have some thickening tips up your sleeve and some thickening ingredients in your store-cupboard. We’ve learnt a lot over the years about the best ways to thicken sauces, gravies and other ‘runny’ dishes – here are some of our best tips!

Do absolutely nothing

Sometimes, you just need to be patient! I once read a newspaper interview in which a celebrity, asked to pinpoint the best bit of advice they’d ever been given, replied that it was this: ‘a sauce thickens on standing’. (The person was not a chef, incidentally.)

Now, it might not be up there with guidance such as ‘never marry a man who’s rude to a waiter’, or ‘traditional A-levels will always stand you in good stead’, but it is, nevertheless, a very useful piece of advice.

Sauces – gravy, custard, white sauce, cheese sauce, and so on – thicken as they ‘stand’ for a variety of reasons. In many, as they cool, their proteins become shorter, rigid and more entangled, making the sauce thicker. In others, the molecular, water-absorbing capacity of the starches has more time to take effect as a mixture is left alone.

It’s always sensible therefore – before you despair and start throwing in all manner of weird and wonderful thickeners – to simply let a sauce stand for ten minutes and see how it’s doing after that.

Use plain flour

Plain flour is a classic thickener. It’s a particularly good choice for thickening at the start of cooking. In a casserole, for example, you can sprinkle plain flour over the meat or vegetables, after browning. Let it cook gently for a few minutes before adding any liquid. As the casserole heats, the sauce will naturally thicken.


Plain flour is also, of course, the basis of a ‘roux’ (flour stirred into melted oil), made to start off many thick sauces.

You can, in addition, use plain flour to thicken at the end of cooking, in what is known as a ‘beurre manie’: mix equal quantities of plain flour and butter in a paste, then add slowly, in small quantities, to the sauce, stirring well.

Thicken a curry

Ground almonds (also known as ‘almond flour’ or ‘almond powder’) are the big name in thickeners for curries (and, being gluten-free, in many ‘free from’ sauces too). They give sauces a lovely silky texture, without imparting an overwhelming taste of nuts. Curry-wise, you’re most likely to find ground almonds used in chicken or mild and creamy curries.

If they’re not suitable, then tomato puree for tomato-based curries also thickens, and cream, coconut cream or yoghurt work wonders in smooth, mild curries.

Use gluten-free flours and starches

We’ve mentioned ground almonds already. Other gluten-free thickening options include diluted cornflour, potato starch, arrowroot, tapioca flour and rice flour. When mixed with liquid and heated gently, these swell to form a thickening gel. All are neutral in taste, so are fine for both sweet and savoury sauces. Do note that you need to dilute them with water before mixing: don’t try to save time by simply tipping in a spoonful – they will clump!

Stuff in some stodge

Sometimes, a little more ‘stodge’ is all that’s needed! You could, for example, crumble some old bread into a casserole or soup, to bulk out the liquid. Lentils, pulses and split peas, and grains like pearl barley, buckwheat and quinoa, are other good options. These all swell up, absorbing liquid, and make a casserole or soup not only thicker, but tastier and healthier.

If you want your thickener to pass ‘under the radar’, then try puree-ing a small amount of potato, or a vegetable such as a carrot or parsnip, and stirring it in. Potato flakes also work well for this, dissolving and thickening.

Thickening sweet dishes?

In addition to the flavourless starches and flours noted above, you’ll often find xanthan gum, pectin and agar agar flakes called for as thickeners in sweet dishes, particularly for specialist diets, such as gluten-free or vegan diets. At Naturally Good Food we sell xanthan gum in 100g home-cook packs and bulk catering bags. Xanthan doesn’t alter the colour or taste of a sauce and also serves as a preservative.

Pectin, meanwhile, is the go-to thickener for jams, jellies and yoghurts (to be used as your recipe demands). And agar agar flakes are great for vegans, thickening a dish where you might otherwise need to use gelatin.

Absolute cheat

In a savoury-sauce-thickening emergency, stirring in a spoonful of some gravy granules can have an instant effect. At Naturally Good Food, we sell gluten-free gravy mix, as well as two vegetarian and gluten-free gravy powders.

Down with runny rubbish!

So don’t put up with runny rubbish any longer. Armed with these tips and ingredients, you can make every sauce truly superb!

Naturally Good Reads v2

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This post was written by Yzanne

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