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Thickening a sauce: gelatin v. corn starch v. wondra

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Ok, I have a simple question: I want to thicken a sauce that is cold and will later be re-heated to reduce. I've seen adding powdered gelatin, corn starch and wondra in different recipes. I've read about them and understand what I can for a beginner. What's the difference here, what do you prefer and why?

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I would reduce it first and then see.  I've never used additional gelatin in a sauce, and I have no experience of Wondra.

 

What's your sauce?

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Just to be clear, what you're proposing is to mix up a sauce base cold, add the chosen thickener, and then heat and reduce the sauce later to finish it? It's somewhat counter-intuitive, but I'm sure you have a reason for wanting to do it this way specifically (and I'd be curious to hear it). 

 

The two issues I see here are that 1) it's hard to know how much additional thickening (if any) you'll need until the sauce is reduced; and 2) the heating/reduction stage is going to screw with the thickeners. 

 

Adding extra gelatin basically is a cheat to compensate for a stock that lacks body. If you don't have enough gelatin your sauce can reduce almost to nothing before it thickens enough naturally. The problem with adding extra gelatin is that you may overdo it, and end up with that unpleasantly sticky mouthfeel. It can also leave your sauce unpleasantly gelatinous (duh) and rubbery after it has a couple of minutes to cool on the plate. 

 

Adding cornstarch means your plan to reduce further is at odds with how your thickener works. The cornstarch will set very rapidly when you bring the sauce up to temperature, so in order to reduce the already-thickened sauce you'll cook the cornstarch until it breaks down and loses its thickening ability. Depending how much starch you add, the sauce might be thick enough to stick and scorch when you try to heat and reduce it. 

 

Most of those same criticisms apply to Wondra, though it won't break down as quickly during the reheating process as cornstarch will. 

 

As a rule it's more practical to reduce your intended sauce until the flavors reach the right degree of concentration, then consider your options. You can bloom and add enough gelatin to give it the mouth feel you want, or add quick-thickening cornstarch (for a translucent sauce) or Wondra (for an opaque sauce) for their immediate and easily observed thickening effect (add a little at a time until it's right). 

Given a bit more information on your sauce and your thought process, we could probably give better-targeted advice. 

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I agree with @chromedome I'd thicken it after you reduce it and do that shortly before you serve it.

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Putting aside the "why" you are going about this the way you are, the Wondra would seem to be your best choice here.  Wondra is pre-gelatinized, so there is no need to cook it or bloom it to make it work, as you would need to do with corn starch (or raw flour).  Gelatin seems wrong for this, as it will gel when cooled, and fall apart when re-heated. 

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Thanks for the replies, this is very helpful. Why I'm adding wondra at the beginning: it's what the recipe calls for, it's from Cook's Illustrated. It's a simple soy sauce, toasted sesame oil, chicken broth sauce for chicken; definitely didn't turn out as well as the other recipes I've tried from them. Admittedly I tried to decrease the ratio from serving 4 to 2 which they don't recommend. I'm obviously not as experienced as many of you, I've been working hard to become a better home cook. In many of their recipes they recommend adding the thickening agent then heating,  @chromedome Thanks for the reply, I'm going to give this a try. So to sum it up:

Wondra- can be added at the end of a reduced pan sauce for better mouth feel, doesn't need to be heated. When would I use/not use it?

Corn Starch- needs heat to bloom, why do this if it's more tenuous of a process, when is using corn starch better than Wondra?

Gelatin-How does this compare? Why choose this over the others?

I really appreciate all the help here. Do any of you recommend more practical books with advice like this?

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Posted (edited)

Perhaps try making a roux and then adding, little by little, until you have the consistency you are looking for?

the question is a bit odd, to me, since I’m not sure what you are going for.


Edited by Cronker (log)

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Okay...the point of adding your thickener to a cold liquid is simply to keep it from gelling prematurely and forming lumps. You don't necessarily have to make up your entire sauce in advance, complete with thickener, and then bring it up to temperature. If you want to reduce it, as I said upthread, that's counterproductive. Instead reduce the main portion of your sauce until the flavors reach a degree of intensity you're comfortable with, then make a slurry with the cornstarch or Wondra and a cold liquid (either water, or a retained portion of the un-reduced sauce base). You can whisk the slurry into the sauce directly (simpler, greater risk of clumping) or whisk some of the hot mixture into the slurry to temper and dilute it and then stir the mixture back in (an extra step, but a more reliable result). 

 

Cornstarch will "bloom" and thicken almost immediately in a sauce that's at even a low simmer. Wondra also thickens almost immediately, because as IAETRIO said it's pre-cooked and doesn't need to cook out as raw flour does. Given the sauce you're describing, the clarity of cornstarch is probably preferable to the opacity of flour. 

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Wondra makes gravy...an opaque sauce

Starch and gelatin  make a translucent sauces eg the stuff on sweet and sour chicken or Gen. Tso

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For last-minute thickening I use a blend 1 part xanthan gum and 10 parts arrowroot starch. Mix the powders together thoroughly. Make a slurry with a bit of cool water and whisk it into your sauce. The arrowroot will have to come up to around 140°F before it fully thickens, so it's not instant ... but this also makes it easier to disperse without lumps. The arrowroot also helps keep the xanthan from lumping up.

 

these ingredients will give better clarity and flavor release than wondra (or any other flour), and you won't get the slippery texture of cornstarch or the stickiness of gelatin when it cools on the plate.

 

 

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7 minutes ago, paulraphael said:

For last-minute thickening I use a blend 1 part xanthan gum and 10 parts arrowroot starch. Mix the powders together thoroughly. Make a slurry with a bit of cool water and whisk it into your sauce. The arrowroot will have to come up to around 140°F before it fully thickens, so it's not instant ... but this also makes it easier to disperse without lumps. The arrowroot also helps keep the xanthan from lumping up.

 

these ingredients will give better clarity and flavor release than wondra (or any other flour), and you won't get the slippery texture of cornstarch or the stickiness of gelatin when it cools on the plate.

 

 

 

This sounds reasonable to me.  I might give it a try.  Modernist gelato (At Home version) uses a mixture of xanthan and tapioca starch.  But what about just straight arrowroot for the poster's problem?

 

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11 hours ago, JoNorvelleWalker said:

 

This sounds reasonable to me.  I might give it a try.  Modernist gelato (At Home version) uses a mixture of xanthan and tapioca starch.  But what about just straight arrowroot for the poster's problem?

 

 

Straight arrowroot works great. I like it more than the other options (I haven't compared with tapioca or potato starch, but I suspect they're similar in the broad strokes). The small portion of xanthan allows it to work in significantly smaller quantities, with more clarity and possibly better flavor release. But the overall texture is only slightly different. It will have a bit more shear-thinning character, as you'd probably expect.

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I would use cornstarch since it doesn't change color too much. But like others have said, you need to add while cold, then bring to a simmer to thicken. Its best to prepare your sauce ahead of time and determine how much cornstarch you need to get the thickness you want. Then right before serving, heat the sauce and add the exact amount of cornstarch. 

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