With its distinctive earthy flavor, filé powder is an important part of Louisiana Creole cuisine. You will most likely need some when cooking up a delicious gumbo. Although it’s easy to find in Eastern US and Canada, it might be harder to find in other places.
If it’s not available to you when you need it, there are alternative options you can use successfully instead. In the following sections, you’ll find the best substitute for file powder in different recipe applications.
What is File Powder?
Filé powder, also referred to as gumbo file powder, is a type of spice made from dried and ground leaves of the sassafras tree. The spice is often used in Cajun dishes, especially in southern Louisiana. Found in health food stores and supermarkets, file is used as a thickening agent and to flavor stews, gumbo, and soups. It is also used in making root beer.
Here are the best file powder alternatives you can use:
Okra is a green vegetable that contains a fiber called mucilage. When cooked for too long these fibers become slimy and have a thickening property. Okra is a traditional way to thicken gumbo since it also has origins in West African cooking.
Okra thickens stew or soup in the same way as file powder, which makes it an ideal alternative. It has a texture very similar to filé powder and can be added according to how thick you want the consistency of your dish to be. Add the okra for a few minutes once the proteins and vegetables are already cooked.
While okra provides a similar texture to filé powder in your dish, it does not provide the same flavor. It is a good textural substitute, but if the filé flavor is more important in your dish, okra won’t be the ingredient to provide that. You may want to consider another replacement for intensified file spice instead.
Best for use in gumbo, stews, soups, and thickening other dishes.
A roux is mainly used as a thickener when incorporated into Cajun dishes. It is made by heating wheat flour with butter. Depending on how long it is heated it comes in light brown to dark brown varieties. If you are using a roux for gumbo, the medium-brown type is best as it offers the darker color common to the dish.
Making a roux takes more time and is less convenient than simply being able to add some chopped okra or file powder at the end of your cook. Keep in mind that you will need extra preparation time if you use this as your thickening agent.
Best for use in sauces, stews, soups, and gravy.
#3. Corn Starch
Corn starch is a very versatile ingredient used as a thickener in sweet and savory dishes. It is made from the inner part of corn kernels and has a very neutral flavor. If you do not like the texture of okra, this can be a great alternative. It won’t change the flavor of your dish and is easy to incorporate.
All you need to do is make a paste by adding a small amount of water to the corn starch. Once you have a smooth slurry, add it to your dish and stir well to let it cook and thicken up.
If you are using cornstarch as a thickening agent, make sure to add enough other spices and bold seasonings to ensure the result is not diluted in flavor.
Best for use in soups, sauces, gravy, pies, and casseroles.
#4. Root Beer
Root beer is a good flavor match to file powder, but a poor textural alternative. It can be used as an ingredient in a variety of sweet and savory dishes. Root beer is a sweet, carbonated drink with a primary flavor of sassafras. Although your dish won’t taste exactly the same when using root beer as a file powder substitute, it is probably the closest you will get without using file powder itself.
Root beer is a thin liquid with no thickening capabilities. That means that if you need the dish thickened, you will need to add another thickener such as corn starch or okra in addition to the root beer, especially when making gumbo.
Best for use in barbeque meat marinade, desserts, gumbo, and chicken wings.
#5. Arrowroot Powder
Arrowroot powder is used as a flavorless thickener similar to corn starch. The white gluten-free powder is made from cassava and arrowroot starch. It offers the same thickening benefits as filé powder but has a more transparent appearance, therefore not dulling the other ingredients in your dish. If you are planning to freeze your dishes for later, arrowroot powder is preferred over cornstarch or file.
To substitute file powder, use one tablespoon of arrowroot powder mixed with one tablespoon of water for every cup of soup or gumbo. Keep in mind that arrowroot won’t add any flavor to your dish. Add some root beer if desired and season it well.
Best for use in sour sauces, stews, gravy, soups, pancakes, and breading.
Eggplants also referred to as aubergines, provide thickening and flavor enhancement to your dish. Eggplants come in different colors and sizes. They can be large with a dark purple outer skin, or oblong and white. The interior flesh of most eggplants is however very similar despite its varying size, shape, or skin color.
Eggplant is a good filé powder substitute in gumbo. If you dislike the texture of okra this is a great alternative. Cut the vegetable into medium size pieces, season, and drizzled with oil before roasting.
Once cooked, blend the pieces and add them to the gumbo to simmer. If the aubergine is not blended well enough it may cause too much thickening. Add it in portions until you get the texture you desire.
Best for use in salads, frittatas, gumbo, soups, and stews.
Nopales are edible cactus leaves from the prickly pear cactus. They are often used in Mexican cuisine. Nopal leaves can be used as a substitute for filé powder, although choosing good quality leaves that are solid, thick, and have no wrinkles, or bruises are essential. The best leaves are medium or dark green in color.
Nopal leaves are crisp with a tart flavor. They require some preparation to remove the spines and peel the skin. Using pre-packed canned or bottled leaves may be easier if you are short on time. Peeled and chopped leaves should be added to gumbo towards the end of the cook since it only needs to simmer for a few minutes to thicken.
Best for use in stews, gumbo, and soups.
Add 2 cups of okra to replace 1 tablespoon of file powder. If you are using cornstarch as a thickener, mix 2 teaspoons of cornstarch with 1-2 tablespoons of water to replace 1 tablespoon of file powder. Make sure the okra and corn starch both spend a few minutes simmering in the gumbo to cook through.
Sprinkle ½ to 1 teaspoon of filé powder on top of each bowl of gumbo while piping hot and stir to thicken.
As with many spices, file powder will last for a couple of years if kept in an airtight container out of direct sunlight. Over time its flavor intensity will decrease.
Filé powder forms a significant part of Cajun dishes such as gumbo, stews, and soups. Although no single substitute will provide you with all the qualities of file powder, you can combine different ingredients to match the taste and texture it brings.
The most convincing filé powder substitute for flavor is root beer, which contains the same sassafras flavor. Combine the addition of root beer with either arrowroot, corn starch, or okra to provide the necessary thickening to complete a delicious gumbo.