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Baking 101: Gelling and thickening agents

Marnely Rodriguez-Murray is the author of the food blog Cooking with Books. A graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, she has worked as an overnight bread baker in Colorado and a chocolate maker in Virginia. She currently resides ...

Textures: how to achieve the right one

Achieving the right texture in your cooking and baking can make or break a recipe. We've rounded up some of the most popular ingredients that can help you achieve that perfect texture!
Woman making pie

Whether it's making perfectly smooth gravy for the holidays or making a pie, you're using gelling and thickening agents in your everyday life and you might not even know it!

What are some of the main functions of these ingredients?

Gelling and thickening agents basically provide a stable product. They increase the stability of your pie so you can slice it and thicken your pudding just enough. Also, depending on the agent, it will give your baked good a delicious sheen such as in your pastry cream. By increasing the viscosity of the main component, these textures can be achieved.

Gums and starches

Gelling and thickening agents are divided into gums and starches, listed below. Make sure to choose the correct ingredient for your recipe. Most of them are not interchangeable.

  • Gelatin is an animal protein, so remember that when making items with gelatin, your vegan friends will not consume them. You can purchase gelatin in powder form as well as sheets that come in varying degrees of strengths.
  • Pectin, present in all fruits, is a vegetable gum that appears in them in varying degrees. High in pectin fruits, such as apples, plums and raspberries, are most commonly used in jam and jelly making. It thickens and when present alongside acid and sugar, it gels clear.
  • Agar, commonly referred to as agar-agar, is another vegetable gum derived from red seaweed and one that the Asian culture has used for hundreds of years. The conversion between gelatin and agar is eight to one, meaning agar is eight times stronger than gelatin.
  • Xantham Gum, popularly used in gluten-free baking, is new to the market, only having been used since the 1960s.
  • Cornstarch, that bright yellow box we all have in our pantry, is one of the most popular starches to use in your kitchen. It's the reason your gravies and puddings thicken and have a great sheen when cool.
  • Arrowroot is made from the root vegetables like yucca and is a great gelling agent, although it can get stringy when misused. Clean flavor and a high sheen make this a great ingredient to use in fruit pies and sauces.
  • Tapioca, popularly known for being the main ingredient in tapioca pudding, is extracted from the root vegetable manioc, which is native to Brazil. You can purchase tapioca flour or tapioca pearls (the pearls come in a variety of sizes). Commonly used in Asian cultures and made famous by its use in bubble tea.

Note

Remember to consider what outcome you'd like to have when choosing a gelling or thickening agents. Whether you want the product to freeze well (use a root starch) or you want the flavor of the agent to be barely noticeable (use pectin), not all gelling agents produce the same results.

Sources: How Baking Works: Exploring the Fundamentals of Baking Science by Paula Figoni, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee

More baking tips

Baking 101: Choosing the right flour
How to bake a flat cake
Baking 101: Sugar and other sweeteners

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