Things to Know about Arrowroot
This thickening agent isn’t normally considered part of the spice category. However it’s integral to so many Southeast Asian mixes and New World blends that your pantry should include some for your culinary experiments. Traded to the East by traditional Atlantic spice routes, arrowroot deserves membership in the spice rack. Six-foot-tall stalks announce the rhizomes underground that will be harvested young, pounded into a pulp, and washed repeatedly to extract the starch.
Origin of Arrowroot
Arrowroot was first derived from West Indies native tropical roots by the indigenous Arawak peoples. Poison arrows were apparently a problem in the day. The starchy pulp was said to extract the toxin from unlucky victims— hence the name. While the snow-white powder is almost flavorless, it does have some advantages over other thickeners like flour or cornstarch. It’s a clear thickener that can do its work at comparatively lower temperatures.
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What really makes arrowroot unique, is the glistening, silky texture it can add to sauces. Normally obtained only with copious amounts of butter. The biggest drawback is that its holding power as a thickener isn’t the best. Overcooking will break down the amylopectins that cause the thickening in the first place and once that happens, there’s no reviving it. Because of its persnickety behavior, arrowroot is usually reserved for use in sauces that must remain clear, such as dessert fruit sauces. One day, I found myself next to one of arrowroot’s biggest fans, the esteemed Graham Kerr, simmering some stock with a touch of saffron added for taste and color. Since this was destined to become a light sauce for vegetables, arrowroot was the right choice.
My Scottish friend told me he didn’t like the “slimy feel you get with arrowroot and milk.” It’s true that with dairy products, the texture that so well simulates butter elsewhere turns into a liability. In the right recipe, namely one that has little cooking time or needs fast thickening at the end, arrowroot is your biggest asset.
Today, the island of St. Vincent in the West Indies is the largest producer of arrowroot. There are numerous imitators, it may be hard to find out exactly which starch you have your hands. True arrowroot has several competitors from Asia and South America, including zedoary, sago, and cassava, which behave similarly.
Properties of these are fairly comparable, and although some can impart different flavors.. The real question is whether the imitators have the same texture and thickening effect; some require a considerably larger amount to achieve the same thickness compared with genuine arrowroot.