The Thickening

Let me begin by saying that this is not a rant about an expanding mid-section. 🙂

Why is it that people like some kind of sauce with their food? Could this be a throwback to some sort of urgent need we all had eons ago? I’m not sure, but I do know that while I lean towards drier fare, a bit of tasty sauce can definitely make a dish more memorable. With that in mind, how does one take a runny liquid and turn it into something wonderful? The answer is to use a thickener. The best thickener for your food is one that seems to disappear completely, letting the stars of the dish remain the main attraction.

While there are a host of ways to pull together a sauce (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thickening_agent), I like to use items that are simple to use and easy to come by.  The three I use most often are tapioca, flour and cornstarch.

When I was learning to cook, it seemed odd that a person should have to have more than one kind of thickener on hand. Why not just have one and use it in everything? I quickly found out that different thickeners work in their own way and yield a unique result, so it was best to complement a recipe with a thickener that enhanced the food rather than detract from it. Here are some of my personal observations:

  • Tapioca is a delightful addition to fruit desserts. My mother used it in blueberry and Saskatoon pie where the round pearls of tapioca would bind the fruit juices and just look like more berries.
  • White wheat flour, when made into a roux, added to a savoury liquid and stirred slowly while allowing the liquid to come to a gentle boil will result in a delicious gravy or delectable sauce.
  • Corn Starch lends the right consistency to a wide variety of dessert puddings and some pie fillings. You can use it in savoury sauces, but it will make refrigerated leftovers look cloudy and when those leftovers are reheated, the sauce never fully regains the smooth liquidity it had when you made the meal.

It can be tough to learn what works best and pleases your palate the most. Andrew Chase created a very handy Pie Chart in the homemakers magazine (Summer 2006) to help beginners get started:

pie chart part 1

pie chart part 2

Good luck and happy thickening!

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2 thoughts on “The Thickening

  1. It happens a lot, Town. The trick to using cornstarch is to combine it with a small amount of cool liquid and then add it to a hot dish for thickening and keep stirring. The leftovers in the fridge will become a cloudy brick that won’t become the clear sauce you had the day before without a lot of heat and more liquid – that’s why I only recommend it for pudding or some pie fillings.

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