What are hydrocolloids?

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The short answer is that a hydrocolloid is a type of thickener. Many of them can also make gels with varying properties when used in higher concentrations.

The longer, more correct answer is that “hydrocolloid” is a classification for a group of compounds (proteins and polysaccharides (starches, cellulose, etc)) that act as gelling agents for water-based liquids (juice, milk, cream, soda, coffee, stock, meat juices, etc).

You probably cook with one or two already…the most common ones in American kitchens are wheat flour, gelatin and cornstarch.

Why do home cooks use hydrocolloids?

Most home cooks use hydrocolloids as thickeners. Whenever you make a roux, thicken a gravy, or add corn starch to pie fillings, you’re using starch hydrocolloids to thicken.

Gluten-free households often turn to alternative thickeners like guar gum and xanthan gum, also hydrocolloids, as wheat flour substitutes in gravy, soup and stew recipes.

Hydrocolloids are also used to gel things. If you make a gelatin mold, panna cotta, or Jell-o, you’re using gelatin (a protein hydrocolloid) to turn a liquid into a wobbly, jiggly gel. When leftover gravy or stock gels in the fridge, that’s also gelatin at work.

If you make your own jams and jellies, you’re using pectin (as an added ingredient or naturally extracted during the cooking process), a hydrocolloid derived from some varieties of fruit.

Why do “molecular gastronomy” chefs use hydrocolloids?

Modernist chefs are using a broader array of hydrocolloids in order to give foods specific textures, thicknesses, and appearances at different temperatures, acidity levels, and concentrations than are possible using more conventional varieties.

They also use hydrocolloids to filter and clarify liquids more effectively than is possible using traditional clarification methods.

Because their use often doesn’t require incredibly expensive equipment like chamber vacuum sealers, autoclaves, roto-evaporators, immersion circulators and centrifuges, hydrocolloids are one of the most affordable and home cook-accessible elements in “molecular gastronomy.”

Why do food companies put hydrocolloids in processed foods?

Food companies use hydrocolloids to help give foods, sauces, etc desirable consistencies consistently.

They are used:
As stabilizers to preserve textures & flavors in products that would otherwise break down or separate on the shelf. For example: salad dressings, sauces & soups.
As an addition to baked goods with fillings to keep the fillings from running out during the baking process.
As thickeners to make sauces & salad dressings consistently thick, yet pourable and to give low-fat products a similar “mouth feel” to their full-fat counterparts.
In ice creams to keep them from freezing too hard.
In a multitude of other applications.

A List of Hydrocolloids: (not a comprehensive list)
Agar (aka Agar Agar, Kanten)
Carrageenan (Iota, Kappa & Lambda)
Gellan (High Acyl & Low Acyl)
Guar Gum
Gum Arabic
Konjac (aka Konnyaku, Shirataki (as noodles), “Devil’s Tongue”)
Locust Bean Gum
Methylcellulose (F50 Methylcellulose, A15C Methylcellulose, etc)
Pectin (Low Methoxy & High Methoxy)
Potato Starch
Sodium Alginate
Tapioca Starch
Ultra-Tex Tapioca Starch (#3, #8, etc)
Wheat Flour (& modified Wondra Flour)
Xanthan Gum

Post Written by Matthew Johnson

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