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Release date: 12/28/2004.
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Thickening and Enriching Agents

Enough with pasty, floury soups--just the kind of goop that sticks to your ribs in the worst of ways. There is a whole world out there of gorgeous thickeners, adding texture and interest as well as substantiality. Just try some of these ideas:

  • Au naturel

    Puree part or all of the vegetables in the soup OR cook down a vegetable like tomatoes to a paste before adding the broth.

    NOTE: pureéed fruits are also good, if they blend with/add interest to the soup. For example, Barbara Williams, now of rural north Georgia, recommends for Brunswick Stew "a secret of an old mountain man who used to sell his by the roadside near here--canned applesauce."
  • Grated starchy vegetables

    Just grate raw potatoes or yams directly into the bubbling pot and cook til thickened.

  • Peanut butter

    Don't try this on any old soup! It's an "Old South" (U.S.A.) favorite: just stir a Tablespoon or two into a standard vegetable or chicken soup. Dates back to the heyday of Goober pea production. And was transported across the Atlantic to Africa, where it became a true standard of West African soups and stews.

  • Cereal grains

    Here's the all time fave of flour, beaten into a little of the soup liquid then stirred in. But there's also oatmeal, rice and rice flour, and barley.

  • Vegetable thickening agents

    Things like:

    • Arrowroot (Maranta arundinacea), a fine powder from the dried rootstalks of a tropical tuber dissolved in a little water. Apparently native to St. Vincent's Island in the West Indies, arrowroot stems are complex carbohydrates with a molecular structure that enables the thickening to occur at a lower cooking temperature than most starches (like cornstarch, below). That means you're less likely to burn it--and, because it has less protein (which clouds liquids) than other starches, it can be used in powder form or dissolved in bath water to soothe irritated skin.
    • Cornstarch (Zea mays), a dense flour made from a corn kernel's endosperm, also dissolved first in water. Why doesn't it cause lumps? Because it doesn't contain any gluten.
    • Tapioca (Manihot esculenta or dulcis)--the starch of the tropical cassava root--that can be diluted in water then stirred in just before serving. The fresh roots are grated, then left to ferment. They are then pressed and the residue is baked into a flat cake. This cake is powdered in pure starch. Tapioca is achieved when this starch is moistened then quickly heated--it just balls right up. Quick-cooking tapioca will thicken soups nicely but leave tiny pieces of tapioca suspended in the liquid. If you don't like it, try to find tapioca flour instead...or process the quick-cooking tapioca in a blender until it's powdered.

  • Eggs

    "In shape, it is perfectly elliptical. In texture, it is smooth and lustrous. In color, it ranges from pale alabaster to warm terra cotta. And in taste, it outstrips all the lush pomegranates that Swinburne was so fond of sinking his lyrical teeth into" ...Sidney Harris, "Tribute to an Egg" (1957)

    "An egg which has succeeded in being fresh has done all that can be reasonably expected of it." ...Henry James
    Egg yolks, lightened with hot stock, then whisked into the soup pot, produces a gorgeously silken texture. For more information about eggs, try the American Egg Board and its facts about eggs.
    Foodtale: A fearful egg tale from Spandau Prison, where German war criminals Albert Speer, Rudolf Hess, and Baldur von Schirach were sentenced after the Nuremberg Trials. Speer wrote in his diary: "Today at breakfast Schirach and Hess refused to eat their eggs because the shells are cracked. They demand replacements, which amazingly enough are provided. In response to my question as to what the fuss is all about, Hess informs me: 'Water on the inside of eggs is unhygenic. Think of all the people who may have handled the egg. Then all that penetrates through the crack in the egg enters the stomach when consumed, and naturally has devastating effects. Now do you understand?' I nod, at once grateful and intimidated. At noon Long whispers to me behind his hand that the rejected eggs are served in chopped egg salad--which Schirach and Hess devour with pleasure."


    Cultured milk products are just about as old as the domestication of sheep, goats, and cows. Created originally in the highlands of Central Asia by ancient nomadic tribes who were dependent on dairying, they weren't just thickeners--they were an important and concentrated source of nutrition...that didn't spoil and that could be easily stored and transported. The culturing of milk and cream into cheeses, yoghurts, and sour creams were spread by these pastoral and warring tribes in every direction, to the borders of China. to India, and into Europe. Some places embraced them; others held them at arms length. You'll find them in the soups of cultures that loved them: Northern and Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Greece, Turkey, the Middle East, Afghanistan, Northern India, and back to Central Asia.

    For a Swiss folktale that highlights the importance of milk in the Swiss culture, click HERE...and you'll read "How the Kuhreihen Began."

    • Cream

      A handy and rich addition to soups because its proteins have been greatly diluted by fat globules and are less likely to form a skin (like milk does) when heated or boiled. It is also fairly immune to curdling in the presence of acidic or salty foods.
      FoodTale: The word "cream" comes from the Greek "Chriein," which means "to anoint." This word is also the root word of "Christ," the "Anointed One."

    • Evaporated milk

      Mary Bruce of Brunswick, Maine, cites this as a good and healthy substitute for cream as a soup thickener, adding body and helping to avoid curdling. She credits Marjorie Standish, author of Cooking Down East with the idea.

    • Yoghurt

      A reasonably good thickener for certain soups--especially Middle Eastern.

      "Yoghurt is very good for the stomack, the lumbar regions, appendicitis and apotheosis." --Eugene Ionesco
      "Mrs. Beaver stood with her back to the fire, eating her morning yogurt. She held the carton close to her chin and gobbled with a spoon.... 'Heavens, how nasty this stuff is. I wish you'd take to it, John...." --Evelyn Waugh
      FoodTale: Note that yoghurt has an undeservedly high reputation in health-food circles. At the turn of the 20th century, it was discovered that the growth of harmful microbes was suppressed in cows by the lactobacilli (found in yoghurt) populating their intestines. An assumption was made...but, unfortunately, lactobacillus bulgaricus does not survive in humans.