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Culinary thickeners for vegan mayonnaise or heavy 'cream' (plus: two new salad dressings!)

Updated: Jan 10, 2022

Up till now, I'd always relied upon raw cashews and Aquafaba to make my thick and creamy vegan mayonnaise ... and by extension, a vegan version of heavy cream (leaving out the mustard, vinegar and seasonings) for adding richness to salad dressings, sauces and gravies. But, I've been playing with various culinary thickeners - in this case, Tapioca Starch and Guar Gum.

As organized as I try to be, I don't always have Aquafaba handy, and I'm not always willing to open a can of Garbanzo's to get some. But, I've always got a collection of culinary thickeners in the pantry, and I've endeavored to gin up a Easy Reference Sheet of Culinary Thickeners for my own use - and yours. To be extra sure, I ran it by a well-known, and highly-regarded chef friend - Charlie Abowd. He gave it his blessing. See that nice and thick spoonful of vegan, no-oil mayonnaise above? Yeah. That's great spread on a sandwich or as the base for a fast no-oil salad dressing.

Why do we need to bother with culinary thickeners? Because, aside from taste and aroma, the texture/viscosity of foods also appeal to our sense of 'how things should be'. Pudding should be thick. Gravy shouldn't be like pudding, but not like water, either. Mayonnaise should be 'spreadable'. Creamy salad dressing should have enough thickness to 'cling' to the lettuce. We expect these qualities and when they're missing, flavor alone won't work.

My mission to understand culinary thickeners began when trying to make oil-free salad dressings and gravy. But, as I started exploring the different thickeners, it became apparent that there wasn't a handy, standard 'cheat sheet' for general use that I could put into my handy kitchen binder. I didn't want to research each on on the internet before making a particular dish that needed thickening. Hence, the spreadsheet that I'm attaching.

You're probably familiar with the more common culinary thickeners like flour and cornstarch, but some of the others might be new to you. They each have their strengths and weaknesses. Some work best in cold dishes, others in hot. Some are opaque and you wouldn't want to use them in a dish or sauce that should be 'clear'.

Starch-based thickening agents are polysaccharides. Large molecular weight carbohydrates which interact to form gels or thickened 'dispersions' when in contact with water. The thickening characteristics of the different agents is dependent on the plant source. The thickening power, clarity, and stickiness of a starch paste are most significant with cereal grains, roots and then tubers like wheat, corn, arrowroot, and potatoes.

There are two stages of thickening.

1- Gelatinization: Heat irreversibly disrupts the semi-crystalline structure of the uncooked starch granule. This process allows starch granules to absorb the water and begin swelling. The temperature needed for gelatinization happens over a range and is starch dependent.

2- Pasting: To achieve maximum thickness, the second stage requires the starch slurry to be heated a few degrees higher than the gelatinization temperature. Agitation is also needed by whisking the sauce to prevent lumping. This process allows the starches to swell independently from each other.

You'll know when thickening is complete when there's no 'starchy' or raw taste. The sauce or gravy will evenly coat the back of a spoon.

That noted, let's go down the list and talk about these plant-based thickeners in turn. For purposes of comparison, I'm using one cup of liquid to be thickened to a 'medium' consistency. You might want thicker/thinner, so either use more/less thickener, or more/less liquid.

Flour. This was probably the original thickener, going back to the Stone Age. Or, at least a few hundred years. It's what is commonly used to make a roux - such as in a Gumbo or Bechamel Sauce.

Obviously, flour is not gluten-free. A classic roux is typically made with fat, but when adhering to the WFPBNO (Whole food, Plant-based, No added oil) way of eating, you won't use the oil. In fact, you just don't need it. I simply add the flour to a non-stick pan, and over medium heat, stirring constantly to cook-off the 'raw' taste of the flour, add cool stock to a hot roux (or hot stock to a cool roux), whisking constantly for a few minutes until the thickening is achieved. Then, proceed with the rest of your recipe.

Cornstarch. This is the common thickener you'll find in many Asian sauces but even pasta sauces. Gluten-free, It has twice the amount of thickening ability compared to flour, but if heated too long can break down and lose some of its consistency. It works especially well in the fast paced Asian stir-fry technique. You don't want to 'hold' a cornstarch thickened sauce. Sauces made with cornstarch have more viscosity and sheen, which is a plus for coating stir-fried vegetables and noodles, for example. Incorporating cornstarch into hot or cold liquids should be done with a 'slurry'. Usually 2 parts cold water is mixed with 1 part cornstarch until an opaque mixture is formed. For example, 1 tablespoon of cornstarch with 2 tablespoons cool water to thicken about 2 cups of hot liquid. More slurry can be added for a thicker sauce. Never add dry cornstarch directly to a sauce that needs thickening. You must use a slurry. If you're substituting cornstarch for all-purpose flour as a thickener, for every 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour that a recipe calls for, it is recommended to use 1/2 tablespoon cornstarch.

Tapioca Starch. From the South American Cassava plant, this fine white powder has a slightly sweet flavor but does not add a noticeable flavor. It’s most often used for fruit pie fillings because it thickens quickly, reheats and freezes well. I use a combination of Tapioca Starch and Guar Gum for many of my salad dressings. With this combo, they retain their thickness even when stored in the fridge for days!

Arrowroot. A very fine white powder with similar thickening to cornstarch, Arrowroot is neutral in taste and keeps sauces clear. Arrowroot starch is extracted from the tubers of the tropical plant, Maranata arundinacea. A slurry should be made before adding, 2 parts room temperature water to 1 part arrowroot powder into a hot liquid. Do not reheat sauces made with arrowroot.

Potato Starch. Sometimes known as potato flour, potato starch that acts similar to arrowroot and results in a translucent appearance. Much like cornstarch, potato starch is used to thicken soups, sauces and pie fillings. It's also an essential part of gluten free baking. It's a good choice for those with food allergies - but you should carefully read the package ingredients to make sure. Add it to everything from stews to pie fillings. potato starch can often hold up to higher temperatures better than cornstarch, you'll still want to pay attention to how hot your dish is getting - too hot and the starch can 'break' leaving you with a runny mess. Potato starch should always be added to a warm recipe so that the starch works as intended. Dishes like soups, gravies, pie fillings and puddings are all recipes in which you can use cornstarch and potato starch interchangeably - as long as the dish will not be subjected to long cooking times.

Guar Gum. Derived from the Guar seed - Guar Gum is economical because it has almost 8 times the water-thickening potency of cornstarch - only a very small quantity is needed for producing sufficient viscosity. It's a very good stabilizer, and you'll find it in the ingredients list of many commercially-prepared foods like salad dressings. Guar Gum shouldn't be used in highly acidic foods, as the acid will reduce the thickening power, but I find that in most salad dressings, it works fine, especially when paired with Tapioca Starch. Online research will eventually mention adverse reactions to Guar Gum, but those reactions are to consuming very large amounts of the stuff, and not the tiny amounts that are used in common recipes. In my salad dressing recipes, I use 1/8th to 1/4 teaspoon of Guar Gum.

Maizena Roux Pour Bechamel. I cannot live without this. It's always in my pantry. The Maizena Roux is very simple to use. You just need two cups of warm plant milk, and 3-6 tablespoons of the Roux. For the two of us, I heat one cup of plant milk and whisk in 3-4 tbsp of the granules, bring to a boil for about 30 seconds - whisking - then cut the heat to simmer. This is all dependent on what you're thickening, and how thick you want it. If the first few spoonfuls don't deliver the thickness you're after, just add a couple more, whisk and bring briefly to a boil and reduce the heat. This product delivers a nice creamy texture and flavor, to which you can add onion or garlic powder, dried herbs (Thyme, Tarragon, Savory and/or Dill Weed are favorites!), red pepper flakes or other flavors. A tiny splash of Maggi Arome (or Worcestershire sauce) is perfect, a few grinds of pepper ... or for a cheesy sauce, add Nutritional Yeast and a pinch of turmeric for color. You don't use Maizena Roux in a slurry. It's not necessary. Just whisk it directly into warm plant milk.

Wondra. Developed by Gold Medal Flour in the early 1960s, Wondra is, essentially, a pre-cooked flour and won't have that 'raw' taste of regular flour. Use it to thicken gravies, soups, stews, and sauces. Keep in mind that a little goes a long way. Wondra flour can not be substituted easily swapped - one to one, for example - with other flours. But, that said, I always have it in the cupboard, and if a soup, stew or sauce needs that little extra 'something', I'll reach for the Wondra. You can make a Wondra 'flour substitute' by mixing 2 cups of all-purpose flour with 1 teaspoon of corn starch, sifting through twice.

Flaxseed. Although flaxseed meal isn't the best choice for thickening a gravy or sauce (the others, such as flour or cornstarch being better for that use) it does work great as an egg-replacer in many different preparations - particularly baking. Use one tablespoon of flax seeds and three tablespoons of water, combined, to replace one egg. The seeds have a gelatinous quality that emulsifies recipes in much the same way an egg would. High in B vitamins, rich in Omega-3 fatty acids and high in fiber, ground flaxseed meal can be added to soups - although you should grind it very fine before adding. I grind it in a small, inexpensive coffee grinder that I keep just for grinding spices and seeds. Once added to the soup, bring the soup to a boil, stirring constantly until the soup begins to thicken. Reduce the heat to a simmer.

Preparing a Slurry - Combine equal parts by volume of refined starch and cool water.

  1. Make sure the liquid to be thickened is at a simmer. To prevent lumps, stir continuously while whisking in the slurry

  2. Return to a simmer and cook for a few minutes until the mixture begins to thicken

  3. Adjust consistency with more starch if necessary

Now, let's take a quick look at how I'm using the Guar Gum and Tapioca Starch in creamy salad dressing! It works great, and holds the thickness even after blending in additional ingredients and refrigerating.

I love making salad dressings with the pickled Peruvian and Peppadew peppers! It's so simple and delicious. Pick up a container of whichever kind you prefer - or both, at your grocery store Olive Bar, and then it's just a simple matter of whizzing the peppers up, adding the vegan mayonnaise, other spices/herbs or flavors that you love. These keep for a good ten days to two weeks in the refrigerator.

For the basic vegan mayonnaise using thickeners, simply follow this :

3/4 cup of soaked, drained raw cashews.

Equal amount of plant milk.

2 tsp. Tapioca Starch

1/4 tsp. Guar Gum.

In a high-speed blender (for best results!) blend for about 3-4 minutes on high. Remove to a container.

Add a bit of Dijon mustard (about 1 tsp), onion powder (about 1/2 tsp), salt and pepper, a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and/or Apple Cider vinegar (about 2 tsp) to taste.

For the dressings:

Peppadew Carrot Siracha Dressing

The bright yellow Peppadew make an AMAZING dressing when combined with about 1/2-3/4 cup of grated carrot, a couple splashes of Siracha Sauce and honey! I combined about 1-1/2 cups of the drained Peppadew (shown above), grated carrot, Siracha and honey. I reserved the vinegar from the Peppadew and after adding the vegan mayonnaise - how much? Enough to get the flavor, texture and thickness that I was after. That was about 3 spoonfuls - I splashes of the Peppadew vinegar back in for additional 'zing', along with some granulated onion and garlic powder, salt and freshly ground pepper. And, BTW, this is awesome on a sandwich!

Peruvian Pepper Dressing

I keep this on hand all the time, since it's just so good on almost anything - included drizzling over pasta or baked potatoes! Take about 1-1/2 (+/-) cups of the drained Peruvian Peppers - reserving the liquid - and blend with about 3-4 spoonfuls of the vegan mayonnaise. For seasoning, I added granulated garlic and onion powder, plus my favorite Summer Garden Salt-Free Herb Blend from the Spice House. It's truly like a summer day on your salad. Add more mayo, and then splashes of the reserved vinegar liquid from the peppers. It's all about balancing the flavors for you! For a more 'Thousand Island' type dressing, add minced pickles.

See how nicely that Peppadew Carrot Siracha dressing clings to the salad? Yeah. That's what I'm talkin' about. Use your culinary thickeners with confidence!

Hey, if you like or make this dish, would you mind posting the recipe to Yummly? I'd really appreciate that. The Yummly icon is on the right side of this webpage. Oh, and saving to Pinterest would also be great! Each photo should have a Pinterest icon in the upper left corner! Thanks!

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