In the Wheat Belly lifestyle, we’ve removed all the standard gravy and sauce thickeners from our kitchen shelves: no wheat flour or cornstarch, despite their widespread use in culinary practices. Even though cornstarch is mostly amylose/amylopectin carbohydrates, there are zein protein and other protein residues that are problematic in a grain-free lifestyle, not to mention the excessive carbs, as well.
But, when looking for alternative ingredients to use as thickeners, it would be silly to replace one problem ingredient with another problem ingredient, like replacing unfiltered cigarettes with low-tar cigarettes–not a good switch. Oat flour, rice flour, or other grain flours would not be good replacement choices, as they all share high carbohydrate content and proteins that can mimic some of the effects of wheat gliadin, such as triggering autoimmune inflammation and appetite-stimulation.
Here are my top choices for safe thickeners (in no particular order):
- Coconut flour–Coconut flour makes a great roux or gravy. The key is to add slowly and sparingly while heated at low temperature, e.g., low simmer in a saucepan, stirring in one teaspoon every minute or so. Much more so than conventional thickeners, coconut flour is very hygroscopic, or water-absorbent, and impatience can lead to a pan of concrete rather than a nicely thickened gravy. If any coconut flavor shows through, it is easily concealed by adding some sea salt, ground pepper, onion powder, ground thyme or other ground seasonings. The end-product will be a bit more gritty than that made with cornstarch or wheat flour (because of protein and fat content), but the flavor will be wonderful, especially if drippings or homemade stocks are used.
- Butter–Dairy does not figure prominently in the Wheat Belly lifestyle, as there are issues with hormone content, whey, some forms of casein, as well as lactose. But butter, especially if organic, is among the least problematic, since it is mostly fat. Because the Wheat Belly lifestyle does not involve any restrictions on fat, saturated fat, or calories, you can go to town with butter and enjoy its rich flavors and ability to thicken. As your taste sensitivity heightens the longer you are wheat- and grain-free, however, making formerly tasty sweets sickeningly sweet, you may find that butter is a bit too sweet and may need to cut back for that reason (but not to limit fat or calories).
- Heavy cream–Not my first choice due to the above mentioned reservations about dairy products that contain more than dairy fat. But, for occasional use, it is a versatile and delicious thickener. You can also add egg yolk for a liason for added richness (but kept below boiling temperature to avoid coagulating the egg yolk), just as you would in traditional French cooking.
- Pureed eggplant, zucchini, broccoli, pumpkin, squash–Just be mindful of your carbohydrate exposure with the higher carb choices such as squash. I love these for soups, in particular. Zucchini is the easiest and safest choice for most dishes, both sweet and savory.
- Okra–Unlike other veggies, okra does not have to be pureed, but can be added to, say, gumbo, as it cooks on the stove and will yield a wonderful thickening effect that avoids the use of traditional cornstarch or wheat flour.
- Nut butters–Aside from peanut butter in Thai dishes, I find these more useful for thickening non-savory dishes, such as a smoothie.
- Avocado–In addition to nut butters, avocado is a marvelous thickening agent for smoothies and puddings.
- Chia, ground golden flaxseed–These are best reserved for thickening puddings, jams, and smoothies as they tend to yield a not-so-desirable gooey texture you may not like for, say, a gravy. Chia, however, does make a wonderful thickener for jams or preserves (several every easy recipes in the Wheat Belly 30-Minute Cookbook).
Update: A reader pointed out that he had terrific results by pureeing fresh mushrooms. I gave this a try and he was right: it adds another dimension of flavor to your sauce or gravy. One caveat: you need a really powerful chopper or food processor to generate a smooth puree, else you will get a grainy consistency.
Arrowroot, is a non-grain choice but is virtually pure carbohydrate. If used in more than the most minor quantities, it can spike blood sugar and yields other health problems, so go very lightly with this thickener.
There you go: a fairly wide choice of healthy thickeners that can accommodate any cooking need you may encounter, whether it’s a rich roux for a roast, gravy for a Thanksgiving turkey dinner, or green smoothie or raspberry jam, all while avoiding all the health impairment presented by traditional thickeners.