Outstreched arm

Friday, June 22, 2007

What happens when you thicken the stew too soon?

I'm not very knowledgeable about food preparation but I do love the art (and science) of it. I can put together a good dinner, though I may not always know exactly what my cooking methods do and how. I'd like to know, though. This is an account of an accidental experiment I performed yesterday.

I was making gumbo, and I prefer to thicken mine with filé rather than okra. It's an herbal thickener - a green, flavorful cornstarch, if you will. Traditionally, it's added at the table or once the stew is off the heat. However, in my rush to add the spices to the time-sensitive mix of brown roux and vegetables, I threw in the filé about forty minutes before its time.

So I wondered: what happens when you add thickener too early?

I had made gumbo a week before using the same exact ingredients, so I figured it would have turned out pretty much the same if it weren't for this slip of the measuring spoon. Any difference in taste or behavior could be reasonably attributed to the filé.

Here are my notes:

- After a few minutes, a light, white foam topped the stew (excess starch?) It was easily stirred back into the mix.
- Oddly enough, the stew seemed to thicken more slowly this time; I'm talking about the forty-minute-simmer thickening.
- I added a little more filé at the end and let it rest for ten minutes - It seemed to have no effect on the stew!
- ... so I added a little more at the table - still no additional thickening.

In fact, by the end of the night, I had added about three times the amount of filé called for, and the stew had rested for several hours. It was still soupier than the properly filé-ed one.

The gumbo still tasted delicious, though; I tried to compensate by making slightly starchier, harder rice to serve it over. It soaked up the excess water and the finished meal was very well received.

Conclusion? Add the thickener when you're supposed to, but if you don't, not all is lost. If anyone out there has a more academic explanation of what happened, let me know.

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