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Is there a common ingredient, or cooking technique, that gives sauces such as Teriyaki, General Tsos, Orange Chicken; their thick/syrupy texture?

We sometimes make dishes in a crock pot; we have a recipe for a teriyaki chicken, and another for a honey sesame chicken, but the liquid we end up with is always very watery/liquidy. What can we do to thicken the sauce; so that it gets the texture that I am used to on Asian chicken?

Note that this does not necessarily only apply to Asian cuisine; sauces such as A-1 steak sauce or even BBQ sauce seem similar; though it's quite possible that their thickness is due to completely different reasons.

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Thickening agents

To thicken, you would mix in an agent designed to do so. There are many options, but here are some that are directly applicable to Asian cooking:

  • Corn starch - Works well in small quantities, though I find it has a tendency to turn sauces into jello in the fridge. If you have too much liquid in your sauce and use a relatively large amount of cornstarch, you can have unusual effects when trying to reheat the leftovers. Specifically, cornstarch solutions can suffer from shear thickening making it hard to return a gelatinized corn starch sauce to liquid form. However, this is 'authentic' in the sense that it is probably what is in your neighborhood General Tso's purveyor's recipe.

  • Xanthan gum - Works well in very small quantities; it doesn't take much to thicken a sauce. I don't think there is anything very Asian about this ingredient, it's more of an 'industrial' food additive. Still, it is flavorless so won't impact the taste of your sauce. Xanthan gum has the opposite effect of cornstarch, namely shear thinning. I don't find the shear thinning to be an undesirable trait.

  • Potato or Tapioca starch - These are my personal preference. These starches act more like flour, in my opinion, and since I have more of a cooking background with gravies and roux, I like these options. To a certain extend, you will have the same shear thickining effect that you will get from corn starch, but I've never gelatinized a sauce with either of these ingredients, so that drives my personal preference.

The above listed don't need more than a few minutes at heat to achieve their thickening effect. Be sure to stir in completely and be patient; if you add thickening agents in haste you can easily end up with too much (again, I find this to be a big problem with cornstarch). Also, for all of them, be sure you don't have too much liquid in the first place; a sea of sticky sauce can often be overpowering.

There are plenty of other thickening agents in common use (flour/roux, egg whites, pectin, gelatin). You could give any of these a try, but I wouldn't consider them "Asian" in any way, so I don't feel like these answer the question.

  • Can you add a note on what "shear thickening" actually is (causes, effects, what it means practically in the kitchen)? I read the Wikipedia article but it was too low-level and didn't have very good examples... – Chris Cirefice May 31 at 20:49
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    I recommend using a slurry. Removing a small amount of sauce (or just using water) to dissolve the starch in before adding it back in can help the thickener mix in evenly. Chasing down lumps with some thickeners is frustrating. – Wazoople Jun 1 at 0:12
  • re: "Still, it is flavorless so won't impact the taste of your sauce." -- This is not quite right. Xanthan gum doesn't fundamentally alter the flavor, sure, but I find it has a way of all around muting the flavors in anything it's in. That means balancing it out with more salt, more acid, etc. – Alex Reinking Jun 1 at 1:34
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    @ChrisCirefice - have you ever played with oobleck? It's a water/cornstarch mixture. When you strike it, it seizes up and quickly becomes a solid at the point of impact. This is the essence of shear thickening. If you drag a whisk through it, it gets thicker near the wires. Even worse if you try to puree it with an immersion blender. – Alex Reinking Jun 1 at 1:37
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    @ChrisCirefice - There's a good chance you have, even if you haven't realized it! Reduction sauces that include a stock often rely on the gelatin from the animal bones for thickening. Bechamels, gravies, and other sauces that rely on a roux use flour as a thickener. – Alex Reinking Jun 1 at 1:48
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Many such sauces include a thickening starch, like corn starch. This can either be mixed with some of the cold liquid and stirred into the hot, or used to coat ingredients prior to adding liquid (with slightly different results).

In a crock pot you can do this at the beginning, or when everything is cooked, a few minutes before serving. Some starches (e.g. wheat flour) need more cooking than others, so need to go in early. You may want to use a little less liquid in the first place if you're adapting a recipe.

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The standard would be rice flour, where a thickening agent is actually used. Some of the sauce you mentioned in the original post are thick because they have been reduced rather than because they've had a thickening agent added.

  • Rice flour is a really lovely thickener, and is at least aprops of the cuisine (although I don't know if it would have been used that way historically). – user3067860 May 31 at 19:33
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Red or sweet bean paste is naturally thick.

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    And if you're cooking something that doesn't use these ingredients...? – David Richerby May 31 at 16:38
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The Red Lotus sweet rice flour is a great sauce thickener. It's may need to be smoothed with a mixer. It tastes sweet and even most sauces well.

It's gluten free and you don't get the wheat taste, that's a big plus!

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    Could you please clarify: Is the product you mentioned different from the general “rice flour” in the other answer? If so, please edit your post accordingly – Stephie Jun 1 at 9:37

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