If you like gumbo, then you have used file powder before. This powder has a distinct flavor. Most say it is similar to root beer, but truth is that this one ingredient represents the extraordinary cultures that makeup Louisiana kitchen. From African, European, and Native American, this one ingredient brings together your recipe.
However, because it is so unique, it is also hard to find. You shouldn’t give up your plans of making an incredible gumbo, or another Louisana meal, as some alternatives can add flavor without altering your recipe.
What is File Powder?
Also known as the gumbo file, this powder is made from the dried and ground leaves of the sassafras tree, which is native to North America. Used by the Choctaw Indians for centuries when the Cajuns arrived in the Louisana area, they began using this powder to thicken soups, stews, and gumbos.
Because it is considered a specialty ingredient in certain places, if you are outside of the United States, it will be particularly difficult to find any. If so, you may want to look online. But sometimes things must move along, in which case, don’t fret, there are still options ahead.
These are the file powder substitutes we recommend for you to try:
Traditional gumbo is thickened with file powder, but in some cases, it can be thickened using okra. Many even argue that okra was traditionally used first, but whatever the case is, this food releases a soluble fiber called mucilage. This fiber seems slimy if not cooked well, but it is the ingredient that will thicken your gumbo.
While there isn’t a real number, you can try adding 2 cups of okra to substitute for 1 tablespoon of the file powder. The real difference here is that okra doesn’t add the distinct flavor from the file powder, but it does add the same texture.
A roux is not uncommon in Cajun cuisine, and it can be used in gumbos sometimes. A roux is made from flour mixed with fat, in this case, it can be wheat flour mixed with butter. The color of the roux depends on how long you fry it, but this also alters the flavor of your dish.
Using a roux can thicken your dish, but it can also be used alongside other ingredients, like okra. You must have made a roux before, particularly if you like certain sauces, such as Bechamel or Veloute.
Not a first choice, but in a pinch, you can use cornstarch to thicken your gumbo without changing the flavor at all. If you can’t find any okra or don’t want to go through the trouble of making a roux, then cornstarch can be the next best option.
To add it to your recipe, make sure you mix the cornstarch with water and then add it towards the end of the cooking process. Because cornstarch can dilute the flavor, you may want to add it bit by bit and taste as you go.
Related: Can Cornstarch Go Bad?
Though it may seem surprising, eggplant is a great choice to substitute for file powder. Eggplant is common in order cuisines, from French and Italian to Middle Eastern, that is exactly why it can be used in this case, as it is versatile.
You can cut the eggplant into medium size pieces, season them a bit, and drizzle with some sort of oil, then roast them for flavor.
Once the eggplant is cooked, you can grind it down, or blend it all. You can add it to your stew, or gumbo, and let it simmer for a few minutes.
#5. Arrowroot Powder
Also not an original choice, arrowroot powder is still a good replacement because it can keep the flavor neutral.
Arrowroot powder can keep a clear appearance when added, but the texture may be different. Try freezing this powder before you use it, as it can create a better thickening effect and overall flavor.
You can use one tablespoon of arrowroot powder with one tablespoon of water for every cup of stew, or gumbo, that you make. Arrowroot has gained popularity lately because it is a healthy thickening agent that won’t add calories but will create a creamy feel to the mouth.
Tips for Using File Powder
It can be scary to use file powder for the first time, as it has a very powerful aroma and flavor, but some things can make your cooking process easier. First, consider that because file powder is so strong, you should aim to begin with a little amount, and then add more if needed, but don’t go beyond what you may want or need.
Add the file powder to your gumbo, or stew, right before serving. If you add it too early, the texture can become stringy and slimy, which means that you should save the powder until right at the end, but if you’re cooking ahead, you may want to hold off until you reheat and serve.
Also important to note, the bark of the sassafras root contains safrole, which is now known to be a carcinogen. While the commercial file powder doesn’t include this ingredient, it is always better to check before you buy it.
The FDA has deemed safrole to be a carcinogen and dangerous, so it has banned products with this ingredient for the market. However, the commercial file powder doesn’t contain this, so it shouldn’t be illegal. It is always best to check with your local regulations though, as laws may vary.
File powder is very aromatic, it smells like eucalyptus and sugar, but it tastes like root beer. When mixed in with a sauce, it will have a similar aroma and flavor to thyme.
The flavor depends on what you add to it. Most gumbos use a mix of ingredients, like a roux, and file powder, or roux and okra. The fat also adds flavor, as most people use animal fats, like lard and butter, to add more taste to it.
It can be very hard to find file powder, especially if you’re not in Louisana, so instead of scratching gumbo off, why don’t you try these choices? Make sure you taste first and consider that some of them are better off added at the end of the cooking process.
*Photo by ezumeimages/depositphotos