Don’t you just adore gumbo? It’s the heart of Southern Louisiana cuisine, a warm, meaty, spicy pot of goodness that has you wanting second, and even third, servings!
And if you want to make some gumbo, one of the most essential ingredients is gumbo file powder. This has a distinctive root beer taste that makes gumbo so delicious. (*)
But we know that not everyone has file powder in their pantry, and it’s a bit difficult to find in the supermarket. Fortunately, there are file powder substitutes you can use!
File Powder Substitute List
File powder is a traditional ingredient best known for its use in Louisiana gumbo. This ingredient is made of dried and ground sassafras tree leaves. (*)
It was traditionally used as a seasoning but then became known for adding thickness and flavor in traditional soups and stews. File powder adds earthy flavor notes to your recipes while thickening stews, perfect for many dishes!
But if you have none of it in your area, choose a substitute for file powder here:
1. Root Beer and Corn Starch
Corn starch is a Godsend in the world of cooking. It offers a neutral flavor and would thicken anything, from soups to custard.
Because of this, they are perfect for adding in gumbos and stews that already have strong and hearty flavors. Add as much cornstarch as needed until it reaches the desired consistency.
However, cornstarch can’t help add or replace the same flavor that file powder has. That’s why we highly recommend adding root beer flavor to your gumbo!
Root beer won’t give the exact earthy notes gumbo file powder does, but it gets you closer to the flavor. Plus, it’s gluten-free!
2. Arrowroot Powder
Arrowroot powder is similar to cornstarch, a neutral thickener that will give gumbo and stews the thickness you want without gumbo file powder. This ingredient gives you clearer stews compared to cornstarch and will sustain its thickening function even after freezing some of your dishes for later consumption.
Like cornstarch, arrowroot powder has neutral flavors, so you can use root beer for a more authentic taste. Arrowroot powder is protein, nut, and gluten-free, so this is an excellent option if you’re allergic to nuts or gluten.
Okra has been a traditional base for many West African soups and stews. Heck, you can find a traditional gumbo that uses okra as a thickener.
In fact, okra is known to be one of the main thickening ingredients of gumbo before it was replaced by Native American file powder! (*)
If you plan to use okra, be wary of how and when you add the okra. Only add okra once your main ingredients are cooking in the pot, then allow it to simmer for just a few minutes, allowing the stew to thicken.
Be careful with timing because if you add okra too early, you might end up overdoing the thickening process.
Similar to okra, eggplant can be a thickening agent and adds more flavor to gumbo. If you don’t like okra’s mucilaginous texture, then eggplant is one of the best file powder alternatives, as it adds a creamier note and matches gumbo well. (*)
If you want an extra touch, drizzle eggplant in bacon fat before you roast and blend it. Then, like okra, add the eggplant once your main ingredients are in the pot and allow it to simmer for a few minutes.
You’ll achieve suitable thickness from the eggplant and earthy, savory notes from the bacon fat!
While the roux is French, it will work excellently! Make your own by cooking wheat flour in butter or melted bacon fat. If you’re vegan, you can use vegetable fat.
When cooking roux, let it reach a reasonably dark color, so you get a rich and warm flavor. Then, add your main ingredients to the mixture, making your stew or recipe as you usually would.
The taste won’t be like gumbo file powder, but it will be just as satisfying!
6. Nopal Leaves
Nopal leaves are used in Mexican cuisine, a kind of cactus with a tart flavor but similar thickening effect okra has. All you need to do is chop Nopal leaves, then add them simultaneously as you would with okra.
It’s pretty accessible and available in canned or bottled form, so no worries about cactus spines!
7. Rice Flour
We like rice flour as a gluten-free thickening agent, which is found in Japanese cuisine. If you’re like us, you may already have rice flour, so it’s a great alternative to thicken soups.
Ike cornstarch can thicken your dish without any added flavors. However, it’s not best for gumbo, so use this for other stew and soups asking for gumbo file powder.
Alternatively, you can use other types of flours as well, such as:
- Tapioca flour is made of dried and ground cassava root, which you can find in Indian and African cuisine. It’s best for sauces, gravies, and soups.
- Gluten-free flour, which you can make into a roux for gumbo.
8. Tomato Paste
If you’re in a pickle and have none of the ingredients above, you must have tomato paste! Gumbo contains tomatoes, so tomato paste can be a good thickener for soups, stews, and gumbo.
This ingredient can add flavor and thicken your dishes without being hard to find in the kitchen or your supermarket. That said, you might need another thickener alongside tomato paste or cook it down to reach your preferred consistency.
Frequently Asked Questions
We’ve got more coming up in the next section; check out these frequently asked questions to learn more about file powder:
1. What recipes use file powder?
File powder is mainly used to add flavor to seafood stews and gumbos in Cajun and Creole cuisine. It’s also found in certain jambalayas and is also served alongside Louisiana rice.
When using gumbo file powder, add about ½ to 1 teaspoon of it to every bowl of gumbo you have. This will thicken and flavor your soups and stews.
2. Can I make file powder at home from a Sassafras tree?
Yes, you can make homemade file powder to get more of the authentic flavor for your gumbo. Here are the ingredients:
- Sassafras tree branches
- Rubber band
- Spice grinder or coffee grinder
- Airtight jar
Follow these steps:
- Cut tips of sassafras tree branches, then tie them using rubber bands.
- Hang the branches and store them in a cool, dark place, away from any heat or light sources. Let it stay for one week or once the leaves become dry and crunchy.
- Separate the leaves, pouring them into your grinder. Grind them until they become ground sassafras leaves, having a distinctive aroma.
- Use the sieve to sift the leaves, eliminating stems, lumps, and any big leaves.
- Pour the powder into your jar, and you now have file powder! Store this in a dark and dry place.
3. Where can I get file powder?
Whether you need it for sausage gumbo or other dishes, you can purchase file powder in supermarkets and reputable online shops.
File powder is made of sassafras leaves and doesn’t have enough safrole to deem it illegal. So, they are available to purchase legally. Safrole is an organic compound considered a mild carcinogen and a banned substance, by the way!
Wrapping It Up
Achieve the distinctive flavor you want from the traditional thickener with any of these alternatives. We hope this list helped you out, and let us know what you think about any of these ingredients in the comments section below.
Enjoy your gumbo!