With the holidays upon us, it’s worth going over again how we thicken sauces, gravies, and soups the Wheat Belly way without having to tangle with the health destruction of conventional thickeners like wheat flour and cornstarch.
In the Wheat Belly lifestyle, we’ve removed all the standard thickeners from our kitchen shelves. But, when looking for alternative 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. 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 if you choose this as a thickener.
There’s also a wonderful side-benefit to using these non-grain thickeners: They are not only healthier, but they are also tastier. You will marvel at why you haven’t been thickening with ingredients like pureed squash, butter, or mushrooms all along.
Here are my top choices for safe thickeners (in no particular order):
- Coconut milk or cream—Coconut milk or the thicker cream makes a great roux or gravy. If any coconut flavor shows through, it is easily concealed by adding sea salt, ground pepper, onion powder, ground thyme or other ground seasonings. Also consider adding drippings or homemade stock. I especially love using coconut milk to thicken curry dishes and creamy soups like cream of mushroom or cream of broccoli.
- 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. (For these reasons, we tend to choose fermented dairy to minimize the issues, especially extended fermentation that we use to make our Lactobacillus reuteri yogurt.) But butter, especially if organic, is among the least problematic, since it is nearly all fat with very little lactose or proteins. 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.
- 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 keep 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 net carbohydrate exposure with 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.
- Nut butters—Aside from peanut butter in Thai dishes, I find these more useful for thickening non-savory dishes, such as smoothies and shakes.
- 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. (There are several every easy recipes in the Wheat Belly 30-Minute Cookbook.)
- Pureed mushrooms—Not only do pureed mushrooms make a marvelous thickener, they also add another dimension of flavor to your sauce, gravy, or soup. One caveat: you need a really powerful chopper or food processor to generate a smooth puree, else you will get a grainy consistency.
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 to accompany grain-free biscuits or turkey at Thanksgiving dinner, or green smoothie or raspberry jam, all while avoiding all the health impairment presented by traditional thickeners.