When I left culinary school it was difficult to imagine more than what I had already learned. Classic french training teaches you the fundamentals and methods needed to cook. But very rarely does it teach you anything other than the basics. There is no Masters or PHD in cooking. All that knowledge comes from hands-on training and working in the field. So as I made my way from job to job and chef to chef, learning along the way. I clearly remember the first time I came across xanthan gum and ultratex. I was “shook” as the kids say. You mean I don’t have to use one of the dozen butter and flour combinations to thicken a sauce? To top it off I vividly remember shouting “you don’t have to heat it”?! This stuff blew my mind. It broke the fundamental rules I had come to know. Less of a short cut but more of a new road built from Point A to Point B. That’s when it all started, are these the only two thickeners like this? If not, what’s the difference? When and where are they supposed to be used?
“How do I pick the right thickener?”
Thick or Thicc?
Oh where to start. I guess we should start with the simple question. What happens when you use a thickener. That’s actually very simple: the molecules of the thickener will grab on to the water and begin to swell. Most of these ingredients have different properties. Some smooth and creamy, some slick, some sticky. So we suggest looking into the properties of each ingredient you are looking to use. Now an issue you can encounter here is some thickeners may clump together. These thickeners LOVE water, they love it so much that they will grab onto it and create clumps. Some clumps can be blended out but others will not. We always suggest two methods to prevent clumps. If you are using sugar or any other powdered dry ingredient, the thickener can be dry mixed with it to prevent clumping. If you’re not using any other dry powdered ingredient be sure to place the liquid in a blender or use a stick blender. Before adding the powder turn on the blender or hand blender. You must sprinkle the powder in slowly to ensure it doesn’t clump. Clumps do a few things, they are unpleasant to see and feel as you eat. Secondly they rob you of the full potential of the product since there is some of the product not hydrated and still in powdered form within the clumps.
Now that we’ve covered how to use these ingredients we can move into what thickeners are good for what? The first time I used xanthan gum it was to add a creamier texture to ice cream. I eventually found my limit when I made a large batch of chewy ice cream. Years later I found there are a whole slew of thickeners that work just as well if not better than xanthan gum in ice cream. Gums like tara gum, guar gum, and locust bean gum all work beautiful and have a creamier texture. These work well with ice creams, hot chocolate, and pastries. Modified starch based thickeners such as Ultra-Tex or Ultra-Sperse work amazingly well in sauces both hot and cold. But they do so much more than that. Puddings and soups are also a great fit for the Ultras. All thickeners also work wonders when it comes to gluten free and plant based items. Everything from sauces, desserts, breads, and ice creams. Sometimes Xanthan gets a bit of a bad rap, but Xanthan gum has some really amazing qualities. Xanthan gum creates a thixotropic fluid. Now other than that being a cool word it has some amazing culinary qualities. Thixotropic means that when it’s poured a liquid will move but as it lays it will not spread. So small amounts of a gum like xanthan will take your dressings to the next level. The emulsified dressing will lay on the leaves of a salad or plate and not run or spread. Konjac gum is a very effective thickener meaning it only takes a small amount to thicken a liquid. Whereas Acacia gum can take up to 40% of the total weight of the liquid to thicken. Once you figure out your needs it can be pretty simple to find a thickener that works for you.
A quick take away from this is that technically any thickener can replace another. Do not take this the wrong way and think all of these are a 1:1 replacement. They are not. But if you needed to replace one with another, chances are you can find a ratio that works for you, although the texture and mouthfeel will most likely be different. As always we encourage you to text out different ingredients and see if you can create the next great recipe.