There are a wide variety of ways to thicken liquids. In Western cooking flour or another starch has traditionally been used, especially to make gravies. Reducing the liquid over heat is another common technique. Many of the modernist ingredients allow you thicken liquids more efficiently and without changing the flavor.
Thickening is a cooking technique which dates back to history and plays a significant role in the creation of sauces and various dishes. This method of cooking is characteristic of French cuisine; however it has been adopted into many other culinary arenas and has undergone a transformation. The earliest form of thickening was achieved through reduction. Later on the use of food additives was employed. Today, in modern cuisine a number of thickening agents are used in order to achieve this.
Thickening agents work to augment the viscosity of a liquid substance without significantly affecting its taste and various properties. More often than not, thickeners are dispersed in water and other polar solvents due to their hydrophilic nature. Most thickening agents are also temperature sensitive and require care when cooking. Too much heat exposure may cause a breakdown as well as burning and too little heat may result in an unpleasant taste together with the lack of ability to firm. Generally, thickening brings about certain characteristics in food.
There are several reasons for thickening a liquid.
One of the biggest reasons to thicken a liquid is to improve its mouthfeel. The mouthfeel is how a liquid feels on the tongue. Thickening it can add body and make it feel more rich and creamy than it typically would. Because of the extra mouthfeel added by many thickeners it is possible to reduce the amount of fats in the dish without a reduction in richness of taste.
By thickening a liquid, and raising its viscosity, we improve how well it clings to food. This helps when applying glazes, keeping sauces on one section of the plate, or evenly coating food.
Many sauces have solid particles in them, such as herbs, spices, or purees. Thickening the liquid helps hold these solids in suspension and prevents them from sinking or floating out of the liquid.
When a liquid is thickened and used in an emulsion, like a vinaigrette, it helps stabilize it for a longer time. This makes thickeners a great way to add body to an emulsion while also stabilizing it.
Even though there are many different kinds of thickeners, a similar process is used to thicken most liquids. Instructions for specific ingredients can be found in the section on Ingredients.
The first step is to disperse the thickener in the liquid you want to thicken. Dispersion is simply the act of evenly distributing the ingredient throughout the liquid. This will ensure the liquid will be thickened uniformly instead of clumping.
Some ingredients require special dispersion methods, such as combining flour with cold water before adding it to hot water to eliminate lumps. Depending on the ingredient, you may have to use a hot, cold, acidic, or other liquid for proper dispersion.
For some ingredients a whisk or spoon will work fine, others will need the stronger shearing forces of an immersion or standing blender.
Once the thickener has been fully dispersed it needs to hydrate. Hydration is basically the process of absorbing water, or another liquid, and swelling. This absorption of liquid, in conjunction with other processes, causes the thickening of the mixture, creating a molecular mesh that traps water.
Depending on the thickener and the liquid being used, hydration will occur at different temperatures and over different time frames. Many ingredients will need to be heated for hydration to occur, like flour and carrageenan, and some will hydrate at any temperature, such as xanthan gum.
The final stage is when the liquid actually thickens. Many thickeners will only begin to work below a specific temperature, while others will work at any temperature. This process typically takes only a few minutes.
There are many different thickeners; the four main ones are listed below. For an extended look at any of these ingredients please see their entry in the Ingredients section.
Commonly called N-Zorbit M or Texturas Malto, tapioca maltodextrin thickens oils. This can range from creating a light paste to a fine powder. It is commonly stirred or whisked into the oil until the desired texture is achieved.
A good all around thickener that hydrates at almost any temperature and within a wide pH range. It is commonly used at ratios of 0.2% to 1%, though it can result in an undesirable mouthfeel at high concentrations, almost resembling mucus. Because it hydrates and thickens very quickly it can be added slowly to a liquid until it obtains the thickness desired, removing the need to always weigh it.
Uses of Thickening in Cuisine
The main role played by thickening in the realm of cooking, whether modern or classic, is to increase viscosity in fluids. As a result of this thickened state liquids are given a different appearance as well as texture. One of the biggest changes in appearance that thickened fluids may have is body. Any liquid that has not been stabilized will flow freely without taking on any specific shape. Thickeners function to hold together these loose fluids, allowing them to take shape, giving it mass and a physical structure by bulking it up. This will also give the substance a specific firmness that prevents the liquids from running out. In cooking, this will allow liquids to adhere, enriching the flavors available.
Another major role played by thickeners in cuisine is that of a binder. Specific ingredients may not bind freely together and becoming stable. High water and fat contents may often prevent ingredients from coming together. In other cases, solid ingredients may not have the capacity to stick to each other and may come apart during the cooking process. Thickeners such as vegetable gums and starches may also work as binding agents holding components together.
There's no forgetting that thickening also works to improve the dining experience through taste, texture and appearance. The usual runny liquid can be modified to create various consistencies. The process of increasing the thickness of liquids can result in lightness, creaminess, richness, fullness and many other food characteristics. Aside from this, dishes are made more enticing with the use of suspension and plating of thickened substances.
How It Works
Food thickeners are classified as either polysaccharides or proteins. Regardless of this, both types of these food additives are known as hydrocolloids which are hydrophilic polymers. This name explains the behavior of the agents. Polymers are chains of molecules which are strung together. Being hydrophilic these molecule chains have a natural affinity to water. Hydrophilic polymers have a tendency to readily interact with water as these become dissolved in water and absorb moisture.
Molecules of such polymers are typically charge-polarized making them capable of hydrogen bonding. This explains why some thickening agents are better used with hot water or cooked with heat. Certain polymers react to hydrogen bonding more easily at higher temperatures causing the hydrocolloids to hydrate better with the presence of heat.
It is normal to have all hydrocolloids work together with water and as a result the diffusion of these is controlled and the presence becomes stabilized. Like other hydrocolloids, thickeners become individualized as they are hydrated causing molecules to become separated from each other. The hydrophilic polymer chains then unfurl and hydrophobic polymer chains become present. The overlapping area between the two types of chains causes water to become trapped in between stabilizing it. Since hydrocolloids have the capacity to attract water much more than its actual weight, the process of hydrogen bonding and hydration results in stabilization due to the prevention of crystallization, settling, separation and collapsing.
Common Ingredients Used for Thickening
Under the polysaccharide type of thickeners there are three main kinds of thickening agents derived from plants.
Starches -Taken from the glucose produced by green plants in their plastids, this carbohydrate can be found in many different staple foods. Common sources of starches include maize, potato, arrow root, tapioca, cassava and wheat. These often come in a white powder form which does not have any taste or smell. Characteristics of starches vary with each one. For example, flour produces an opaque color, while cornstarch does not have any color. Tapioca starch will give off a glossy finish and arrow root starch works well with acidic substances.
Vegetable Gum - Natural gums which are able to cause viscosity even with small amounts are derived from various plants. These may be taken from the cells of seaweeds, sap or seeds of specific trees and bushes or made through the fermentation of certain bacterial species. Like starches, each of these natural gums has their own properties.
Pectin- Extracted primarily from citrus fruits, this white to brown powder is a source of dietary fiber. It is widely used as a thickening and gelling agent, most especially for jellies and jams. The natural acidity of this substance causes liquids to stiffen.
Another type of thickening agent which can be used for this technique is proteins. One example of which is eggs. Proteins have the ability to coagulate causing liquids to become trapped within the set network it has.
The other day I was up for some Chinese food but I didn't feel like ordering the greasy, starchy takeout from around the corner so I decided to make some myself. I had some extra brisket in the freezer that I wanted to use up so I went for a pressure cooked version of Chinese Peppered Beef.
At this time of cantaloupe is just starting to come into season. They are tender and sweet and barely resemble the bland and watery winter versions. The local farmers market recently had some "Sugar Kiss" melons that I couldn't resist.
Even though cranberries are a staple for Thanksgiving sauces they are often overlooked for more traditional sauces. Their combination of tartness and mild fruitiness is a great complement to many BBQ sauces. I like to serve this BBQ on a smoked and sous vided brisket.
This recipe turns a popular spinach-garlic dip into a foam for dipping. It can be served with roasted pita squares or even just vegetables and chips. This dip also works great as a sauce to perk up the flavors of steak or chicken.
Flank steak is full of beefy flavor and has a great bite to it. Serving it with chimichurri, a spicy garlic and parsley based sauce, is very popular in Argentina and other South American countries. This recipe makes an excellent choice for a party!
Aioli is simply a mayonnaise made with garlic and olive oil. This recipe uses an immersion blender to make the process super-easy and results in a light dip for vegetables or a spread on breads and toast. It's a popular addition to any party fare!
Cranberries are a great treat any time of the year. This recipe combines the tang from the cranberries with the smokiness from the ancho pepper. For a burst of flavor place on a crispy crostini and topped with with spices and mint. A great party treat!
This recipe uses the pressure cooker to turn an inexpensive chuck roast into a moist,flavor-packed beef entree and the whipping siphon to prepare a spicy tangerine froth topping. It's a fun and simple meal that will impress your family and dinner guests alike.
Versawhip and xanthan gum combine to make light
foams that are a great way to add texture to dishes.
It's a great topping for desserts and ice creams or can
even be eaten as an amuse bouche between dishes.
Roasting parsnips gives it an almost nutty taste, which holds up well to a topping of chipotle-carrot froth. The modernist ingredient of xanthan gum is used in the froth to help it retain the bubbles generated in the whipping siphon. This is a fun dish to serve as an appetizer or starter plate.
This recipe takes classic homemade marshmallows and covers them in yummy chocolate. Mint and chocolate is a classic pairing and the soft marshmallows are a great way to hold them all together! A definite party favorite!
When I'm having wings I almost always reach for the honey-chipotle BBQ sauce. It's a delicate balance between the heat from the chipotles and the sweetness from the honey. Just be sure to make plenty, your guests will love it!
Beer braised brats are a great summertime BBQ dish. I really like it served with a strongly flavored Guinness mustard on a toasted bun with grilled peppers and onions. Since the grill is already hot from the veggies, finish the brats with a quick sear to caramelize the outside and enjoy!
This recipe makes a clean and fresh tasting pea pesto dip that works great with just about everything, especially grilled sourdough bread, carrot and celery sticks, as well as roasted vegetable chips. This party favorite is quick and easy to put together and can be made with defrosted frozen peas - however, if you have access to fresh spring peas it'll be even better!
This recipe combines lime and ginger which are two great ingredients to pair with the bold flavors of the sous vided sirloin steak. I like to add texture and brightness to the dish by combining them in a vinaigrette-style sauce that is drizzled over a crispy cabbage and pepper slaw topping.
This recipe tops sous vided chicken with a modernist froth to make a favorite dish that even pickier eaters tend to gobble up! By using xanthan gum in the teriyaki sauce you can turn it into a flavorful froth in a whipping siphon. Even a "basic" food can be the talk of the party!
What to serve your guests something a little different but exceptional for dinner? In this dish I topped sesame noodles with shredded duck legs because they can hold up to the strong flavors of the pasta. You can serve this entree either hot or cold. It's sure to be a hit!
The combination of apples and pork are a classic pairing in Irish cooking. For this recipe, I roast apples and use the modernist ingredient of agar to turn them into a fun pudding topper for pork. By sous vide cooking the pork, you can consistently serve an extra moist and tender meat entree.
This recipe infuses the flavors of shallot, lemon, and tarragon into a vinegar and then makes it into a light, bright vinaigrette. This pairing adds several base layers of flavor to the fish. For a modernist twist, thicken it into a sauce with xanthan gum!
The star of most of my parties is meat and this blackberry-peach wrapped sous vided pork offering is no exception! It makes a fun presentation besides the additional sweetness and flavor from roasting the fruit complements the pork perfectly.
This recipe is a great crostini topping for any party, especially if some attendees might be less adventurous eaters! It resembles a more traditional dish but it have a subtle modernist touch. Garnishing the white bean puree with lemon zest pulls in even more highlights to the food.
By using the basic modernist ingredient of xanthan gum this recipe turns tuna into an upscale party favorite for any gathering. I serve the tuna squares with a pickled pear relish and an Asian accent sauce for a pop of flavor.
This dip recipe combines the spicy heat of habanero peppers with the sweet taste of fresh ripe peaches. The resulting tangy dip is great on vegetables or even meat. By altering the amount of peppers used, you can raise or lower the heat to suit your guests.
When watermelon is in season it's hard to resist. For some parties you need nothing more than to slice it and hand it out with paper towels for people to scarf down. However, sometimes you want something a little more refined and that's where this recipe comes in.
Sweet green grapes are another favorite snack of mine and they're a great party food because most people really like them. For this more upscale dish I turn them into a sweet, fizzy soup. The xanthan gum helps hold the particles in suspension and the carbonation effect adds a pleasant tingle and tang to it.
This modernist recipe is a refreshing take on blueberry lemonade that changes the ubiquitous summer drink into a modernist creation your friends will love. It is a light blueberry froth dispensed on top of a glass of lemonade. The blueberry foam slowly filters into the drink, changing the flavor of the lemonade the longer you drink it. It is a quick recipe to make and is a great way to elevate a common drink.
There are many different types of foams you can make using different modernist ingredients and foaming methods. This foam resembles bubbles and is made with xanthan gum and Versawhip that has been aerated with an aquarium pump. It's a pretty unique way to make bubbles and they are very interesting.
These Mexican inspired salmon bites pack a lot of flavor in a little package. The acidity from the tomatillos compliments the salmon perfectly and the crunch from the fried tortillas adds great texture.
Not all dishes that use modernist ingredients have to be super fancy in-your-face dishes that look like they came from Alinea. This red pepper pesto crustini is a great example. It is a simple, hearty snack that is great when served as an appetizer or set out as hors d'oeuvres.
This is a simple modernist vinaigrette to make and utilizes both xanthan gum and lecithin to strengthen and thicken it. I really like the sweet maple syrup with the tangy balsamic vinegar. This goes well on salads, especially ones with berries. You can also add a little more xanthan gum and use the vinaigrette as a sauce on fish or chicken.
Modernist foams come in many varieties. They can be made by blending, in a whipping siphon, or even using an aquarium bubbler. This recipe focuses on a different type: whipped foams, specifically whipped Methocel foams.
Xanthan gum, or just xanthan, is one of the easiest ingredients to work with. It is used extensively to thicken liquids; a great ingredient used to turn thin liquids into savory sauces. It quickly hydrates or disperses at any temperature, making it one of the few ingredients you can add slowly and instantly see the result. Also, xanthan gum does not lose its properties when microwaved.
One of the nice things about modernist cuisine is being able to thicken liquids without significantly diluting the flavor of them. There are several ingredients that can do this and here I use xanthan gum to make a balsamic vinegar syrup.
An easy way to get started with molecular gastronomy or modernist cuisine is through the creation of tapioca maltodextrin powders. Tapioca maltodextrin is simply a extremely fine powder that acts as a thickener when mixed with fat. This modernist recipe focuses on making a sesame oil powder.
One of the easiest molecular gastronomy recipes to try is by creating "pearls". Most pearls are solid jelly balls that can be used to garnish dishes or as an amuse-bouche. Here we use sweet-sour balsamic vinegar to make pearls that are a great way to add a hit of flavor to many different dishes. The process of making them is even pretty easy.
This article is by me, Jason Logsdon. I'm a passionate home cook who loves to try new things, especially when it comes to cooking. I've explored everything from sous vide and whipping siphons to pressure cookers and blow torches; created foams, gels and spheres; made barrel aged cocktails and brewed beer. I have also written 10 cookbooks on modernist cooking and sous vide and I run the AmazingFoodMadeEasy.com website.
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