Starch thickeners

Update: 8/3/2013

Notes: These silky powders are used to thicken sauces, gravies, pie fillings, and puddings.   They're popular because they thicken without adding fat or much flavor.  

  • --- Arrowroot starch = arrowroot powder = arrowroot = arrowroot flour    

This starch thickener has several advantages over cornstarch.  It has a more neutral flavor, so it's a good thickener for delicately flavored sauces.  

It also works at a lower temperature, and tolerates acidic ingredients and prolonged cooking better.  And while sauces thickened with cornstarch turn into a spongy mess if they're frozen, those made with arrowroot can be frozen and thawed with impunity.  

The downside is that arrowroot is pricier than cornstarch, and it's not a good thickener for dairy-based sauces, since it turns them slimy. 

Arrowroot also imparts a shiny gloss to foods, and while it can make a dessert sauce glow spectacularly, it can make a meat sauce look eerie and fake.
To thicken with arrowroot, mix it with an equal amount of cold water, then whisk the slurry into a hot liquid for about 30 seconds.   Look for it in Asian markets and health food stores.  

Equivalents:  One tablespoon thickens one cup of liquid.  
Substitutes:   tapioca starch (very similar) OR Instant ClearJel®  OR cornstarch (Cornstarch doesn't impart as glossy a finish and can leave a starchy taste if undercooked.) OR kudzu powder OR potato starch OR rice starch OR flour

(Flour makes an opaque sauce, imparts a floury taste, and can easily turn lumpy. Use twice as much flour as arrowroot.)

--- Regular tapioca = small pearl tapioca
Notes: These are small beads of tapioca that are used to make tapioca pudding.  
The beads don't dissolve completely, so they end up as small, squishy, gelatinous balls that are suspended in the pudding.  Don't confuse this with instant tapioca, which is granulated and often used to thicken fruit pie fillings, or with pearl tapioca, which has much larger balls.  

Substitutes: instant tapioca (Tapioca pudding made with this will end have smaller gelatinous balls. Use half as much.)

--- Tapioca pearls = pearl tapioca = large pearl tapioca = fish eye tapioca = tapioca balls = sa khu met lek
Notes:   These round pellets are made from cassava roots. Asians use them to make puddings and a beverage called bubble tea.
You can also use them to make tapioca pudding, though it's faster and easier to use instant or regular tapioca. The pearls are normally soaked for at least a few hours before they're added to a recipe.

Substitutes:  sago starch OR instant tapioca OR tapioca starch

--- Tapioca starch = tapioca flour = cassava flour = yucca starch = almidon de yuca  
Notes: Tapioca is a good choice for thickening pie fillings, since it thickens at a lower temperature than cornstarch, remains stable when frozen, and imparts a glossy sheen.  

Many pie recipes call for instant tapioca instead of tapioca starch, but instant tapioca doesn't dissolve completely and leaves small gelatinous blobs suspended in the liquid.  
This isn't a problem in a two-crust pies, but the blobs are more noticeable in single-crust pies.  Tapioca starch is finely ground so that it dissolves completely, eliminating the gelatinous blob problem.  

The starch is also sometimes used to thicken soups, stews, and sauces, but the glossy finish looks a bit unnatural in these kinds of dishes.  

It works quickly, though, so it's a good choice if you want to correct a sauce just before serving it. Some recipes for baked goods also call for tapioca flour because it imparts a chewier texture.

Substitutes:  instant tapioca (Also good for thickening pie fillings.
If you like, pulverize the beads in a blender before using.) OR Instant ClearJel® OR sweet rice flour (also remains stable when frozen) OR cornstarch (doesn't dissolve as easily, separates if frozen) OR arrowroot (separates if frozen) OR potato starch (separates if frozen) OR rice starch (separates if frozen) OR instant flour (use twice as much; sauce will be opaque, not clear; separates if frozen).

--- Water chestnut flour = water chestnut powder = water chestnut starch  
Notes:    Asian cooks often dredge foods in this before frying them, because it gives fried foods a crisp, nutty coating.  It can also be used as a thickener.  
Look for it in Asian markets and health food stores.  Don't confuse this with chestnut flour. 

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