Quick Summary tl;dr
Unleash your culinary creativity with a delightful array of low-carb and gluten-free thickeners that will transform your recipes.
Suitable options include using reduction, vegetable purees, dried mushrooms, egg yolks, cheese or cream, chia seeds, almond and coconut flour, flax meal, konjak powder, nut/seed butter, gelatin and xanthan gum.
Avoid or minimize high-carb thickeners like arrowroot flour, cornstarch, and potato starch on a low-carb or ketogenic diet.
When adhering to a nutritious low-carb diet, finding suitable replacements for high-carb ingredients becomes essential. Contrary to popular misconceptions, there is a wide array of low-carb alternatives available for almost any food.
One question frequently posed by our newsletter subscribers is how to effectively substitute flour with keto-approved options.
In this post, we will focus on thickeners, providing a comprehensive guide to low-carb and gluten-free options. In an upcoming post, we will also address how to substitute flour with keto-approved options in baking. So stay tuned for more information and say goodbye to any concerns about what to use as a flour substitute when going keto – we have you covered!
1. Make a Reduction
The simplest method to thicken any sauce or gravy is through reduction. This technique requires no additional ingredients and is incredibly easy to execute. By gently simmering your sauce on low heat, you allow it to naturally evaporate and reduce in volume. The result is a thicker sauce with intensified flavors.
When working with sauces that contain other ingredients like meat and vegetables, it's important not to overcook them. Instead, use a ladle to transfer as much sauce as possible into a small saucepan and simmer until you achieve the desired thickness.
When reducing sauces, it's advisable to be cautious with salt. Season your sauce after the reduction process rather than before, as excessive salt can result in an overly salty taste.
Another effortless way to thicken sauces is by incorporating fats such as butter, ghee, or olive oil. After cooking a delicious ribeye steak or skin-on chicken thighs in a hot cast-iron pan, you're left with a pan full of flavors. Simply add a splash of lemon juice or dry wine to deglaze the pan, cooking on low heat while scraping the browned bits from the bottom. After a minute, add a tablespoon or two of cold grass-fed butter to the pan. Whisk the mixture until smooth and creamy, then serve it over your cooked steak or chicken, elevating the dish with a luxurious sauce.
2. Pureed Vegetables
A convenient method to thicken sauces, gravies, soups, and stews is by partially blending cooked vegetables. Virtually any vegetables and aromatics can be utilized for this purpose, such as onions, garlic, zucchini, broccoli, cauliflower, bell pepper, and more.
To achieve this, simply take a cup or two of the cooked vegetables along with some of the cooking liquid and transfer them to a blender. Process the mixture until smooth, and then reintroduce it back into the pot with the remaining ingredients.
Aside from the commonly mentioned pureed vegetables, you can also experiment with other types of vegetable purees, such as pumpkin, sweet potato, or butternut squash. Even a can of tomatoes or tomato paste can serve as effective thickeners. These can add thickness and a hint of sweetness to your dishes.
Some of our most popular stews, including Cozy Fall Beef Stew and
Instant Pot Red Wine Pork Stew are using this method.
3. Dried Mushrooms
Dried or fresh mushrooms, much like vegetables, are an excellent thickening option that pairs well with a variety of meat and vegetable stews, as well as soups.
When using dried mushrooms, it's essential to soak them in boiling water for 30 minutes before incorporating them into your sauce. Cook the soaked mushrooms for at least 10 minutes before blending them. Porcini mushrooms, known for their rich flavor, are particularly delicious in meat and vegetable stews.
Our simple gluten-free Keto Gravy recipe utilizes this method, combining pureed aromatics, herbs, and mushrooms for a flavorful and thickened result.
4. Egg Yolks
Egg yolks are a wonderful low-carb alternative to flour when it comes to creating creamy sauces without the extra carbs. I have successfully used egg yolks to thicken sauces, gravies, and even soups, including recipes featured in my Keto Slow Cooker & One-Pot Meals Book!
When utilizing egg yolks as a thickening agent, it's crucial to temper them properly to prevent curdling and the formation of cooked egg yolk clumps. Tempering may sound intimidating, but it's actually quite simple! Here's how you can do it:
- Separate the egg yolks: Begin by cracking the eggs and separating the egg yolks from the egg whites. Set the egg whites aside for another recipe, such as our Keto Angel Food Cake or Ultimate Keto Buns.
- Whisk egg yolks with water, stock or cream: Whisk the egg yolks with some cold water or chicken stock (check out the recipe for Low-Carb Instant Pot Beef Stew). For an even creamier result, whisk the egg yolks with some heavy whipping cream (try the recipe for Pork & Kohlrabi Stew)
- Combine with hot liquid: Gradually and slowly add about a cup of the heated cooking liquid to the egg yolk mixture while whisking constantly. Be sure to lower the heat to prevent scrambling the eggs later on. Once you have added one to two cups of the hot liquid (the mixture should be hot), slowly pour the tempered mixture back into the pot and continue stirring until it becomes creamy and thickened.
Once you become familiar with this technique, it will become second nature to you!
Use a Non-Reactive Pan
When using aluminum pans, using egg yolks to thicken a recipe can result in discoloration. Aluminum can react with certain compounds present in egg yolks, causing them to turn gray or develop a metallic taste. To avoid this, it is advisable to use a non-reactive pan.
Non-reactive pans are typically made of materials like stainless steel, enamel-coated cast iron, or glass, which do not react with acidic or alkaline ingredients, including egg yolks. Using a non-reactive pan helps preserve the natural color and flavor of the ingredients in your dish.
5. Dairy: Cheese, Cream and Yogurt
Heavy whipping cream is an excellent choice for adding thickness to sauces. Adding a dollop of unsweetened yogurt or sour cream to your sauces or soups can provide creaminess and thickness. Make sure to whisk it in gradually to avoid curdling. They work wonderfully in recipes like Breton Chicken or Creamy Tarragon Chicken, providing a creamy and velvety texture.
Cream cheese and goat's cheese are also fantastic options for thickening. For example, you can create a creamy spinach dish by incorporating cream cheese in the Salmon with Creamy Spinach & Hollandaise Sauce recipe. Cream cheese, with its richness, creates a thicker texture compared to whipping cream and sour cream.
Finally, when combined with shredded cheese, cream cheese makes a very thick and creamy Cheese Sauce!
6. Almond Flour or Coconut Flour
Nut flours, such as almond flour, seed flours, and coconut flour, are excellent choices for thickening sauces and stews. Among these options, coconut flour stands out as the most absorbent low-carb flour. This means that you won't require a large quantity of it to achieve the desired thickening effect, while also minimizing any potential aftertaste.
7. Ground Flax Seed
Ground flaxseed (flax meal) is commonly as an egg-free option in recipes including bread, cake and muffins. It can be also used as a thickening agent in sauces and soups. Simply mix a small amount of flax meal with water to form a gel-like consistency, and then add it to your dish. Go easy on flax meal as the taste may be too strong.
8. Chia Seeds
Chia seeds possess remarkable absorbent properties, making them an excellent choice for creating thicker textures. Whole chia seeds work wonderfully for thickening sugar-free jam, while ground chia seeds are suitable for thickening sauces and gravies. Go easy on ground chia seeds as they may make your sauce a bit gritty.
9. Nut & Seed Butter
Any nut or seed butter can be utilized as a thickening agent for meat and vegetable stews, particularly those with Indian influences. The key factor to consider is the taste profile of the butter. Nut butters like almond or macadamia offer a more subtle flavor, while options like pecan or hazelnut butter provide a bolder taste. If you have a nut allergy, sunflower seed butter or tahini (sesame seed butter) can be used as alternatives.
While not technically classified as nut or seed butters, both peanut butter and coconut butter (also known as coconut manna) are exceptional choices for thickening stews, curries, and even for preparing flavorful stir-fries like our delicious Keto Pad Thai.
10. Gelatin Powder or Agar Powder
For those looking to replace starches, especially in desserts and sweet recipes, gelatin powder or agar powder (a vegetarian and vegan option) can be excellent choices.
In traditional custard recipes, a combination of cream, milk, sugar, egg yolks, vanilla, and cornstarch is used. However, our Keto Vanilla Custard recipe takes a low-carb approach by substituting cornstarch with gelatin, using almond milk instead of whole milk, and incorporating butter for added richness.
11. Psyllium Husk
Ground psyllium husk is a fantastic addition to your repertoire, offering both a fiber boost and effective thickening properties. With its ability to absorb liquid and create a gel-like substance when mixed with water, it serves as a versatile and neutral-tasting thickener. Remember to use it sparingly, as excessive amounts can result in a gelatinous texture.
12. Konjac Flour (aka Glucomannan Powder)
This low-carb and gluten-free thickener is derived from the konjac plant. It has strong thickening properties and can be used in small amounts to achieve desired consistency. Up to a teaspoon of this thickener should be enough in most recipes.
13. Xanthan Gum and Other Vegetable Gums
Xanthan gum is a commonly used low-carb thickener. One of the advantages of using xanthan gum is that only a small amount, usually a teaspoon or even less, is required to achieve the desired thickening effect.
However, it is important to note that xanthan gum can sometimes cause gastrointestinal issues and may result in a slightly unusual texture. Sauces and gravies thickened with xanthan gum tend to have a smooth, slightly viscous, and glossy texture which may not always be what you are aiming for.
In addition to xanthan gum, there are other vegetable gums available as low-carb thickeners, such as guar gum, although they may have similar drawbacks. It's always recommended to use these thickeners in moderation and consider personal preferences and sensitivities.
The Not So Suitable Thickeners: Arrowroot Flour, Cornstarch and Potato Starch
When it comes to low-carb diets, conventional gluten-free thickeners like cornstarch, arrowroot powder, and potato starch are not the most suitable options. These thickeners are relatively high in carbs, with approximately 7-8 grams of carbs in just one tablespoon. While this amount may not seem significant, the carb content can add up quickly in meals. Therefore, if you are following a low-carb or ketogenic lifestyle, it is advisable to avoid these thickeners.
However, it's important to note that in certain recipes (and for certain people), using a tablespoon of these thickeners for the entire dish may be just fine. Consider the overall carb count and portion sizes to make an informed decision.
What Can I Use to Make Roux?
To make roux, you need to use a starch. That's why almond flour and coconut flour are not suitable for making roux. An option is to use arrowroot flour which is a starch and therefore it is a good option for making roux. Remember that this option may not be suitable for everyone.
Here is how to make roux:
- Start by heating fat: In a saucepan or skillet, melt a fat of your choice, such as butter, ghee, or olive oil, over medium heat. The amount of fat will depend on the quantity of roux you need.
- Add arrowroot flour: Once the fat has melted and is hot, gradually whisk in an equal amount of arrowroot flour. The most common ratio is one part fat to one part flour, but this can vary depending on the desired thickness.
- Cook the roux: Continue whisking the flour into the fat until well combined. Cook the mixture over medium heat, stirring constantly, until it reaches the desired level of browning. The longer you cook the roux, the darker and nuttier the flavor will become.
- Use the roux: Once the roux has reached the desired color, you can use it as a base for sauces, gravies, and soups. It acts as a thickening agent, adding body and richness to your dishes.
- For a white or blonde roux: Cook the mixture for a shorter time, just until the flour is incorporated and the mixture is smooth.
- For a brown roux: Cook the mixture for a longer time, until it develops a rich, golden-brown color and nutty aroma.
In conclusion, I want to emphasize that there are countless alternatives to flour for thickening sauces, gravies, and various recipes. By embracing low-carb and gluten-free options like reduction techniques, pureed vegetables, dried mushrooms, egg yolks, cheese or cream, nut and seed butter, chia seeds, xanthan gum, and gelatin or agar powder, you can confidently create mouthwatering and fulfilling dishes that align with your dietary choices. Don't be afraid to get creative in the kitchen and enjoy the incredible flavors and textures that these alternatives have to offer.
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