How to Thicken Sauces, Stews, and Soups

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Knowing how to thicken sauces is an essential skill in the culinary arts, crucial for enhancing everything from pasta and vegetable-based sauces to salad dressings and cream sauces.

Pouring gravy over stuffing.

Whether you’re a home cook looking to perfect your tomato sauce or a chef aspiring to create the ideal consistency for pan sauces, mastering various thickening techniques can transform your dishes.

These kitchen tips for learning how to thicken stews and other sauces are what I have learned through years of experience. Today, I’ll show how to achieve a glossy texture and rich flavor and adapt these methods for food allergies and substitutions.

Why You Need to Use Thickeners

Thickeners are vital in cooking for achieving the desired consistency in sauces and are critical for both flavor enhancement and visual appeal.

A good sauce should not only taste great but also cling beautifully to your food. One of my favorite things about our bacon mac and cheese recipe is how the cheese sauce clings to the rigatoni.

Baking dish of mac and cheese with a wooden spoon in it.

Thickeners also help to balance and intensify flavors, transforming a runny sauce into something sublime.

How to Thicken Sauces and More

Knowing how to thicken sauces, stews, and soups effectively is a key skill in cooking, especially for comfort foods.

There are many ways to make a thick sauce for home cooks and professional chefs alike. The best way to thicken a stew or sauce or soup depends on many factors.  

A bowl of alfredo sauce

For creamier dishes like Alfredo sauce or creamy soups, a roux made from equal parts of flour and butter, known as beurre manié, creates a rich, thick paste.

Or, thickening agents such as xanthan gum offer an alternative thickening method. This might be particularly useful for those seeking gluten-free options or needing only a small amount to achieve the desired consistency.

1. Flour-Based Roux

Using a roux, made with equal parts of butter and all purpose flour, is a common way to thicken cream and milk-based sauces. Melt the butter, then gradually whisk in tablespoons of flour, cooking over medium heat to eliminate the raw flour taste.

We use flour to thicken the horseradish sauce in our cauliflower gratin recipe.

This method is also a good rule of thumb for making a thicker consistency for gravy and other sauces.

Expert Cooking Tip

Use a small a hand-held fine mesh strainer to add flour as a thickener for sauces. Doing this allows you to stir the flour as it is added in small amounts and helps avoid clumpy gravy and sauces.

2. Cornstarch Slurry

Mixing a tablespoon of cornstarch with an equal amount of cold water forms a slurry, an easy way to thicken sauces without altering their flavor.

A skillet of mushroom sauce.
We use cornstarch to thicken this creamy mushroom sauce.
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This method is best used towards the end of the cooking process because the cornstarch molecules lose their thickening ability under high heat. This is a common thickening agent and one of the better options for many sauces and gravy.

3. Reduction

The reduction technique, where you simmer the sauce to evaporate excess water, is excellent for concentrating flavors and reducing water content, ideal for wine-based sauces like those with white wine or tomato sauces.

We use the reduction technique to thicken stews like our braised beef and beef bourguignon recipe.

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4. Egg Yolks

Egg yolks add richness to sauces, making them a better option for pasta and dairy-based sauces. Temper the yolks with a small amount of the hot sauce before incorporating them back into the rest of the sauce to avoid curdling.

5. Beurre Manié

Beurre manié, a mixture of equal parts butter and flour, can be whisked into hot liquid to thicken sauces without creating lumps. Knowing how to use beurre manie works wonders for pan sauces and gravies.

6. Tomato Paste

Tomato paste, due to its concentrated flavor and low water content, is perfect for beef stews, pasta sauces, and tomato-based sauces.

Expert Cooking Tip

If you’re going to add tomato paste to thicken a stew or sauce, brown it over medium heat frist. This will help carmalize the tomato paste and add extra flavor to the base of your stew or sauce.

Adding tomato paste to a skillet.

7. Tapioca and Potato Starch

For a gluten-free option, tapioca and potato starch are excellent alternatives. They work well in acidic sauces and dishes that require freezing.

8. Xanthan Gum

Xanthan gum is a powerful thickener and stabilizer, ideal for gluten-free and low-carb cooking, especially in salad dressings and sauces.

9. Other Methods

  • Corn Starch: A mixture of equal parts cornstarch and cold liquid can thicken a sauce quickly, ideal for stir-fries and simmering sauces.
  • Tapioca Starch: For sauces that need a glossy sheen, a small amount of tapioca starch is an excellent way to achieve this.
  • Lemon Juice or Vinegar: Adding acidity can sometimes help thicken sauces, such as soy sauce or sweet sauces, by breaking down some of the starch molecules.
  • Simmering: Sometimes, simply simmering the sauce on low heat for extra minutes can help achieve the right thickness.

Food Allergies and Substitutions for Thickeners

For those with gluten sensitivities, cornstarch, tapioca starch, or a gluten-free gravy thickener are ideal thickeners. These can be used in equal amounts to flour, following the general rule of thumb for substitutions.

For dairy allergies, using chicken stock as a base and thickening with cornstarch or a flour substitute like rice flour can be an excellent option.

How to Tell if Your Sauce is Thick Enough

Getting sauce thickness just right will make your cooking taste better. It’s all about getting that perfect feel and flavor in every meal. This skill can really turn ordinary recipes like bbq sauce or gravy into something special.

  • Spoon Test: The easiest way to check the consistency of the sauce is the spoon test. Dip a spoon into your sauce – if it’s a cup of sauce or much more – and see if the sauce coats the back of the spoon evenly. If the sauce sticks to the back of a spoon without dripping off quickly, it indicates that your sauce has thickened appropriately and is not a watery sauce or runny gravy.
  • Thickness upon Cooling: Often, sauces thicken as they cool. After adding thickening agents like a tablespoon of cornstarch mixed with a little bit of liquid or xantham gum, remove a small amount of sauce and let it cool for a few minutes. The consistency it reaches upon cooling is a good indicator of how thick your sauce will be once it’s off the heat.
Making a roux in a pan.
  • Consistency While Stirring: Pay attention to the feel of the sauce as you stir it. If you’ve added extra ingredients like equal amounts of flour or used chicken stock as a base, notice the resistance against your stirring utensil. A sauce that’s thick enough should offer some resistance and appear visibly thicker than a thin sauce, almost like a way rice pudding holds together rather than a liquid

Knowing How to Thicken Sauces is Important

Thickening sauces is a fundamental skill for creating sumptuous and satisfying dishes. From ensuring your pasta sauce has the perfect consistency to adding extra richness to your cream sauces, these techniques are straightforward yet impactful.

A skillet of tomato sauce
We use tomato paste to thicken this slow-cooked homemade tomato sauce.

Experiment with different methods and ingredients to discover what works best for your culinary creations. Check out additional tips at the bottom of the page for more insights and techniques. Happy cooking!

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Meet the Platter Talk Guys

Dan & Scott split their time between Wisconsin and Southwest Florida and are dads to six boys. Good food runs through their veins, and they love showing others how to cook easy recipes.

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