How to thicken a stew

Learn how to thicken stews and casseroles like coq au vin and beef bourguignon using the right amount of flour or other ingredients.

Beef and vegetable stew in a pot

Sometimes you finish cooking a stew, casserole or other gravy-based dish like a pie filling, and while you're happy with the flavour, it's still too runny. This happens more often with dishes made in slow cookers as they don't allow water to evaporate.

At this point you have a choice: you can boil off some of the liquid (but this will also concentrate the flavour, which you may not want, and you could overcook the ingredients), or you can add an ingredient that will not affect flavour but simply thicken the liquid for a creamier texture.

The three main thickening agents for gravies are flour, cornflour and arrowroot. The first two are normally used in savoury dishes while arrowroot tends to be used in sweet dishes – that said, arrowroot will work in a savoury dish as it has no flavour. All three contain starch that swells when mixed with liquid and heated.

Using flour as a thickener

Coq au vin in a rectangular pot

Flour can be used in three ways: 

1. It can be added to the meat as it's being fried, before liquid is added, and this way it will thicken a stew as it cooks. We use this method in our beef & vegetable casserole recipe.

2. Flour can be mixed with a little cold water to make what is unattractively called a ‘slurry’, which is then stirred to disperse it and stop it forming clumps – a technique called ‘slaking’. After adding to the stew, it's brought to the boil to cook out the flour taste and allow the starch to swell. Try this using 1 tsp flour at a time, incorporating each lot before adding another.

3. Alternatively, you can mix equal quantities of flour and butter (and/or oil) together to make a paste called ‘beurre manie’. Whisk bits of the resulting paste into the hot stew where they will dissolve and disperse the flour. (This works better if you have lifted the meat or veg out of the gravy or sauce, first.) Use 1 tbsp flour and 1 tbsp butter to start and whisk it in bit by bit, then make more if you need to. Make sure you boil the liquid for a couple of minutes to cook out any raw flour. Use this method in our coq au vin recipe.

Using cornflour as a thickener

Chicken pie with a flaky filo pastry

Cornflour is an ideal thickener if you're a coeliac or simply intolerant to gluten, because as the name suggests, it is made from corn. Be aware, though, that it produces a slightly more gelatinous texture than flour, so don’t overdo it or you’ll end up with a slightly gloopy sauce. It also works well for healthy cooking as it doesn’t add as many calories to a dish.

Try this in our ultimate makeover: chicken pie recipe.

How to thicken slow cooker stews and casseroles

The nature of slow cookers is that they don’t ever get very hot, so this means that any thickener may not, depending on the model, ever get hot enough for the starch to swell – remember that both flour and cornflour need to be boiled. It may be necessary to transfer the sauce or gravy to a saucepan in order to boil it.

Discover more comforting stew and casserole recipes...

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How to make next level beef bourguignon




Do you have a secret ingredient to thicken your stews? Leave a comment below...

Comments, questions and tips

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24th Aug, 2019
Be warned. Cornflour is made from wheat, not corn; thus, it contains gluten.
11th Oct, 2019
It really doesn't, cornflour is produced from corn/maize kernels. Unless someone has been cutting your cornflour with wheatflour :) Some packets may not say it is gluten free if it was produced in a factory which also produced wheat flour though, so if you are badly affected by it you should probably check that it is labelled as gluten free.
Jason Coulls's picture
Jason Coulls
3rd Nov, 2019
Correct-ish. I spent three years in food safety, and one major part of that was tracking down gluten mislabelling. Corn flour, *should* be just that - flour made from corn, so it's gluten free (this is why things like corn bread require wheat flour, to introduce gluten). However, as pointed out, processing can introduce contaminants. Further, regional laws can fuzzy this problem; for instance in the EU, powdered sugar is literally just sugar (gluten free), whereas in the USA it can be cut with corn-flour (also gluten free) to make it fluffier in the packet, but sometimes is cut with wheat-flour, thus introducing gluten.
Tina Blaker
17th Oct, 2018
Pearl barley added with the meat. Nutritious and swells as the stew cooks.
12th Oct, 2018
I use red split lentils because they have nutritional quality. As they cook quickly can be added part-way through, or even cooked separately until they are very soft, and stirred in after cooking if the stew is too thin.
Russ618's picture
3rd Oct, 2018
Why does my onion soup cooked in a soup maker (sauted in pan first) look like an oil pond on top tastes great but looks awful
goodfoodteam's picture
3rd Oct, 2018
It sounds like you need to give it a good stir before serving, the oil does have a tendency to rise to the top.
Elizabeth Tait57
26th Apr, 2020
Mashed potato makes a good thickener in many savoury dishes.