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I ask this because I have used a minuscule amount of Xanthan Gum to slightly thicken a chilli sauce I have made. However upon looking at the ingredients of many popular chilli sauces they all tend to use a "modified starch" (modified cornstarch, modified maize starch, modified tapioca starch, are the common ones I've come across) as a "thickener" and Xanthan Gun as an "emulsifier".

Given this what is the difference between a thickener and an emulsifier? How would my chilli sauce change if I used a modified starch instead of Xanthan gum? And why is it ideal to use both?

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Emulsifier will make two or more element blend together, for example the egg in the mayonnaise recipe will act as an emulsifier.

A thickener will simply make something thick, as you wrote, cornstarch is a thickener.

Personally, I would use neither cornstarch or xanthan gum in a chill sauce; seems to me that it is a shortcut instead of letting it cook down properly (but I might be wrong).

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    It took me a second to get this, but I believe the OP is asking specifically about xanthan gum - it appears to act as a thickener, but as the ingredients say it's an emulsifier. It sounds like the truth is that it's an emulsifier that also thickens a bit. Acting as an emulsifier is more unique and important, though; there are tons of thickeners but they'll generally still let oil and water separate unless you thicken to the point that it's not really liquid anymore. – Cascabel Jul 10 '15 at 0:02
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As Max points out, emulsifiers work by allowing two normally incompatible ingredients to mix. There are different ways that emulsifiers do this. Lecithin, probably the most common emulsifier, can do this because its molecule has a water-binding end and an oil-binding end. Hydrocolloids, like xanthan gum, can also have emulsification properties, but they work quite a bit differently.

Hydrocolloids work by binding up water, which causes a marked increase in viscosity. This allows them to function as thickeners. They are sometimes used in this capacity in combination with other emulsifiers as the increased viscosity helps to make emulsions more stable. Some hydrocolloids can work as emulsifiers on their own because they either increase viscosity enough that the droplets of differing materials can't separate, or they have a small protein component that helps to bind the ingredients.

In your case, the main difference if you switched ingredients would probably be texture. Different hydrocolloids can have similar thickening capacities, but give markedly different textures. Because of this, they are frequently used in "synergistic systems", where multiple hydrocolloids are used to modify each others' textures to acheive a desired result. This is basically what's happening in the commercial sauces.

If the xanthan gum worked fine for your purposes on its own, I'd just stick with that. Modified starch can be a lot of different things with different purposes, so if your problem is solved more simply, it's probably best not to go down that rabbit hole.

  • This is really informative, thank you – seeker Jul 11 '15 at 12:49

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