I’ve personally tried and tested a range of different file powder substitutes to find the best one.
Whatever your reason for avoiding file powder is and whatever dish you’re cooking.
Here’s the quick answer.
The best file powder substitutes for thickening are okra, cornstarch, arrowroot powder, or eggplants. Nopales are an unexpected but decent option if you can find them. To replace the flavor of file powder, try root beer extract, dried thyme, tarragon, or ground bay leaves.
Ready? Let’s jump right in.
I made gumbo to put twelve file powder substitutes to the test.
File powder is an herbal ingredient made from ground-up sassafras tree leaves.
It’s commonly used as a thickening agent for Cajun classics like gumbo, but it also adds an earthy flavor with hints of anise and citrus to your dish. I looked at substitutes for thickening, as well as options for replicating the flavor.
Here’s what I tested and the verdicts:
|Substitutes for thickening||Substitute directions||Verdict|
|Okra||use one cup of sliced okra to thicken a sauce for 4 people||10/10|
|Cornstarch||1 tbsp cornstarch + 1 tbsp cold water for 1 cup of sauce||9/10|
|Arrowroot powder||1 tbsp arrowroot powder + 1 tbsp cold water for 1 cup of sauce||9/10|
|Eggplant||use half an eggplant to thicken a sauce for 4 people||8/10|
|Tomato paste||use 1 teaspoon per cup of sauce||6/10|
|Nopales||use one cup of chopped nopales to thicken a sauce for 4 people||7/10|
|Roux||2 tbsp flour + 2 tbsp butter for 1 cup of sauce||8/10|
I also look at substitutes for flavor:
|Substitute for flavor||Substitute directions||Verdict|
|Root beer extract||Start with a few drops and adjusting to taste||10/10|
|Dried thyme||Replace in a 1:1 ratio||9/10|
|Dried tarragon||Replace in a 1:1 ratio||8/10|
|Ground bay leaves||Replace file powder in your recipe with ½ the amount of ground bay leaves||7/10|
Common uses for file powder
File powder is popularly used to thicken gumbo, but here are other common uses for it and their substitutes:
- Thickening soups and stews – okra, eggplant, cornstarch, arrowroot powder
- Other Louisiana classics (jambalaya, etouffee, etc. for flavor)– root beer extract, dried tarragon
- Spice rubs – dried thyme, ground up bay leaves, tarragon
Best substitutes to replace the thickening power of file powder
If your main concern is thickening your dish, here are some great thickener alternatives. You can add some extra herbs for flavor as well, I give you the best options later on!
Okra is my go-to substitute for file powder.
Lie file leaves, okra contains mucilage, which is a gel-like substance that’s great for naturally thickening dishes (its also what gives okra its slimy reputation).
Okra may not have the complex flavor of file powder, but its mildly sweet notes complement the bold flavors of a dish like gumbo perfectly.
And okra pods are are veggie, so they’re loaded with good-for-you nutrients! They’re really easy to get hold of too – you can get fresh pods in most stores, but frozen okra works just as well if they’re not in season.
Pro tip: slice the okra pods up before adding them to your dish so they easily release the mucilage. And don’t add them too early. Fro best results add them about 30 minutes before the dish is finished.
How to substitute: 1 cup of sliced okra (fresh or frozen) will thicken a meal for 4 people.
Cornstarch is a really effective thickener, but it doesn’t have any flavor so you’ll need to add something else to replicate the file powder taste (see below for options).
To use cornstarch you need to mix it with cold water first to make a slurry and then mix it into your dish. As a rule of thumb, one tablespoon of cornstarch will thicken one cup of liquid.
Never sprinkle cornstarch straight into your dish! This is a guaranteed way to get lumps.
Psst… cornstarch doesn’t freeze that well (the sauce can take on a spongey texture), so avoid this substitute if you plan on freezing your dish.
How to substitute: 1 tbsp cornstarch + 1 tbsp cold water will thicken 1 cup of sauce.
An alternative to cornstarch that does freeze well is arrowroot powder.
Arrowroot is the most neutral tasting of all the starch based thickeners, so it definitely won’t add any flavor to your dish. Again you’ll need to make up for the filer powder flavor in other ways.
You’ll need to mix it with water before adding it to your dish. And it’s best to add it right at the end of the cooking process to make sure it’s not exposed to heat for too long (this can cause it to break down).
But… don’t use arrowroot if you’ve got dairy in your dish – the two ingredients don’t mix.
How to substitute: 1 tbsp arrowroot powder + 1 tbsp cold water will thicken 1 cup of sauce.
Another veggie option for thickening is eggplant.
When it cooks down, eggplant takes on a creamy consistency that’s great for thickening sauces.
It’s got a mild flavor with a hint of sweetness, but it will mostly just take on the flavors of whatever sauce you’re cooking it in.
Eggplant can take quite a long time to cook compared to other vegetables, so dice it up into small pieces. Or even better, roast it and puree it before you add it into your meal to give a hint of smokiness.
How to substitute: half an eggplant will thicken a meal for 4 people.
If your dish doesn’t need a lot of thickening, tomato paste can work in a pinch.
It doesn’t have much thickening power mainly because you only want to add it in small amounts (the flavor is super concentrated)! But you probably already have some in your cupboard which is helpful.
It’s also only really suitable for tomato-based dishes and will deepen the sauce’s rich, savory flavors.
How to substitute: use 1 teaspoon per cup of sauce (more and the flavor may be overwhelming).
I’ve tried nopales (cactus) before in salads, but I never thought about using them as a thickener until now.
It makes sense though! Nopales are part of the ‘mucilaginous vegetables‘ group along with file powder and okra, so the leaves contain the same sticky substance.
And they have a tart, slightly citrusy flavor that’s reminds me of file powder’s lemony notes.
One downside is that this isn’t always the easiest ingredient to find.
How to substitute: 1 cup of chopped nopales (fresh or frozen) will thicken a meal for 4 people.
Roux is a traditional thickening agent made up of equal parts flour and fat. Most gumbo recipes will already include a roux, but you may be making a different dish!
It doesn’t taste like file powder but adds a delightful nutty flavor that tastes superb with rich, boldly-flavored dishes.
Roux comes in four varieties based how long you cook it for. The rule of thumb is the darker the roux, the more intense the flavor.
For rich, meaty dishes I’d go for a chocolate colored roux. For chicken os seafood I’d stick with a lighter blonde version.
Pro-tip: rice flour is a great gluten-free option to make your roux.
How to substitute: 2 tbsp flours + 2 tbsp butter will thicken 1 cup of sauce. Cook to desired color before adding the sauce.
Best substitutes to replace the flavor of file powder
If you’re missing the flavor of file powder, here are some great stand-ins.
Root Beer Extract
If you have your thickening agent covered and only want file powder’s unique flavor, consider using root beer extract!
Many liken file powder’s bright anise notes with root beer because this popular drink used to be made from the root and bark of sassafras.
The flavor is highly concentrated, so start with a small amount and constantly taste your dish before adding more so the flavor doesn’t become overpowering.
Major grocery stores might stock root beer extract, but you can also easily order it online.
How to substitute: replace file powder in your recipe with root beer extract, starting with a few drops and adjusting to taste.
Dried thyme is a solid option you can use to replace file powder.
It lacks file powder’s citrusy note but has the earthy notes down to a tee.
And if you really want that bright, lemony flavor, consider looking for dried lemon thyme instead (or adding a splash of lemon juice to the dish as well)
One thing to note is that unlike file powder, dried thyme should be added during the cooking process to allow its flavors to meld properly with the other ingredients.
How to substitute: replace file powder in your recipe with an equal amount of dried thyme
Another herb you can use in place of file powder is dried tarragon.
It’s not an exact flavor match because it doesn’t have an earthy flavor like file powder, but it has similar hints of the unique aniseed flavor.
And just like file powder, it’s best to add dried tarragon at the end of the cooking process or just before serving to prevent it from becoming bitter.
How to substitute: replace file powder in your recipe with an equal amount of dried tarragon (1:1 ratio), adding it right as you finish cooking.
Ground bay leaves
Got bay leaves sitting in your cupboard? You’re in luck – blitz a couple of leaves in your spice grinder, and use the resulting powder in place of file powder.
Their flavor isn’t as complex or deep as file powder, but the powder will have a similar earthy note with a slightly spicy flavor.
Pro-tip: if you miss file powder’s citrusy flair, consider adding a dash of grated lemon zest.
How to substitute: replace file powder in your recipe with half the amount of ground bay leaves.
Can you make file powder from scratch?
You can make file powder from scratch if you can access Sassafras trees, which are native to west America. Check here to see exactly there these trees grow in
Once you get your hands on the leaves, the process couldn’t be any easier!
Spruce Eats shares a step-by-step process that involves drying the leaves before grinding them. If you have fresh leaves, you’ll need to plan ahead because they’ll take about t week to dry.
Other file powder substitute options
The list is my top picks for file powder substitutes, but here are other ideas you may want to try:
- Other starch based thickeners: cornstarch and arrowroot are the most common statch based thickeners. But you can also use tapioca flour, potato starch, or agar agar. Each starch has their own unique advantages and disadvantages. To learn more check out this brilliant guide.
- Sweet potato / other starchy vegetables: another way of thickening sauces is to add some pureed starch in the form of something like sweet potato or beans If you already have some in your recipe, you can remove them puree them, and stir them back in. Or you can cook them separately. Be careful with this method that yo don’t add too much, as it can dull the flavors of your dish.
- Ground baobab leaves: this substitute becomes sticky once added to dishes, giving you a similar thickening effect. And it’s packed with vitamins, nutrients, and fiber that’ll increase your dish’s nutritional value. The big downside is it’s a niche ingredient, so you can only get it online. You’re very unlikely to have some to hand!
Best File Powder Substitutes
- 1 cup1 okra
- 1 tbsp roux
- 1 tbsp cornstarch + water
- 1 tbsp arrowroot powder + water
- 1 cup nopales
- 1 tbsp tomato paste
- 1 tsp root beer extract
- 1 tsp dried thyme
- 1 tsp dried taragon
- ½ tsp ground bay leaves
- 1 cup eggplant
- Cook your meal according to the recipe.
- Add your chosen file powder substitute at the appropriate cooking time.
- Mix until thoroughly combined and continue with the recipe.