Filé powder is an integral part of Louisiana cuisines. More than a spice, it’s an excellent thickener for soups and gumbos.
What to do if you don’t have file powder for making a gumbo? What can you use in place of file powder? This article explains the best gumbo file powder substitute to use in a pinch, also a little about its flavor profile and uses in cooking.
What is file powder?
Filé (pronounced “FEE-lay”) powder, also known as gumbo filé, is an herbal powder made from the dried and ground leaves of the sassafras tree (Sassafras albidum), originating from America. Importantly, the roots and barks of this plant are not fit for consumption as they contain a weak carcinogen called “safrole.”
This unique and rare powder spice has been used by the Choctaw Indians for seasoning foods for centuries. As the Cajun population (Acadians) came to live in Southern Louisiana this spice became a key ingredient in Louisiana cuisines like gumbos, soups, and stews.
You can buy file powder from most groceries in the US or from online vendors. And if you can’t get it in your locality, use other ingredients that are suitable replacements for gumbo file powder.
How does file powder taste like?
The file powder has an earthy taste similar to a combination of savory and thyme. It has a strong aroma like eucalyptus or like Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum. You’ll find the same taste of file powder in root beer which is made from the bark and root of the sassafras tree.
In fact, the unique taste of Louisiana stews, soups, and gumbos is attributed to file powder.
How to use file powder in cooking?
File powder is generally used in Louisiana cuisines as a thickening agent and seasoning ingredient in spice blends. It’s an important ingredient in some of the popular Cajun dishes like etouffee and gumbo. Currently, some bakers use this powder in the dough for a thicker consistency.
Gumbo file powder is also one of the ingredients that go into the making of root beer.
What is a good gumbo file powder substitute?
File powder is closely associated with gumbo, the state food of Louisiana. They say that the authentic taste of gumbo is truly credited to file powder.
If you don’t have file powder while making gumbo then you have to take recourse to an alternative to file powder. Here are a few good substitutes for file powder to use in gumbo and other recipes:
Okra pods are an excellent substitute for file powder used as a thickener. In fact, gumbo is made with either gumbo file powder or okra.
According to historical evidence, okra was used as a thickener in West African culinary tradition much before the entry of file powder.
Okra pods contain a soluble fiber called mucilage and when heated it helps to thicken your dish. Many people prefer to use okra over file powder for it doesn’t have any distinctive flavor. Also, it renders a bright soft texture to your dishes.
In Louisiana, okra gumbo is used in the warmer season and file gumbo in winter dishes because okra pods are as easily available only in summer.
Add minced okra pods to your dish like the file powder until your dish achieves desired level of thickness.
Roux is equal parts of flour and fat cooked together and used to thicken sauces. Like okra, roux is also a thickener quite commonly used in Cajun cuisines including gumbo.
Roux has a mild flavor that is both refreshing and delicious, also colors like blond, brown, or dark brown depending on the duration of frying. Often, roux is mixed with one or more other traditional thickeners because of its dominating color and flavor.
Usually, a medium brown version of the roux is used in gumbo for it gives an attractive light reddish texture to gumbo. You can also use roux in soups, stews, and sauces if its reddish color doesn’t matter for you.
3. Corn starch
Corn starch is the most commonly used food thickener for its neutral taste and easy availability. It has a superior thickening ability in comparison to file powder and others. Obviously, it is the simplest and most convenient file powder substitute that you can use in any dish that calls for file powder.
Make corn starch into a slurry-like form and add to your dishes towards the end of cooking. Usually, the binding effect of corn starch may slightly suppress the flavor of spices. Use a little more quantity of spices and other flavorings when using corn starch in your recipe.
4. Root beer and Cornstarch
Root beer is produced from the bark and roots of the sassafras tree while file powder is from the dried leaves of the same tree. They both have identical flavors but differs in uses.
Root beer is a good file powder replacement for the sake of flavor. Note, root beer doesn’t have any food thickening ability unlike file powder or roux. For this reason, root beer is used in gumbo along with cornstarch or roux. In fact, the combination of root beer and cornstarch works just like the file powder in gumbo and other dishes.
5. Arrowroot powder
Known as arrowroot starch or flour, arrowroot powder is made from tropical plant roots (cassava) that are dried and ground.
It’s a flavorless substitute for file powder that you can use in gumbo, soups, stews, and other recipes. In fact, this powder has a superior thickening capacity and does not change the color and taste of the original recipe. Importantly, it’s a gluten-free alternative to gumbo file powder with several nutrients beneficial to health.
The bottom line
Filé powder is an important part of Cajun cuisines, almost an unavoidable ingredient in gumbo. Its nutritional benefits are few but loved for its food thickening ability and delicious flavor.
It’s a pantry staple in Louisiana and surrounding regions but not in other parts. Thus you won’t get it in most parts of the world and so it becomes necessary to find a gumbo file powder substitute. In fine, we would recommend okra, roux, and cornstarch as the top 3 replacements for file powder.