Do you know how Gumbo Filé got its name? This spicy dish draws inspiration from two very different parts of the world, Gumbo is the word for okra In the West African language of Bantu. Filé comes from the French word filer, which means spin, or to spin.
So, the savory stew made famous in Louisiana cuisine means spun okra. Gumbo traditionally gets its characteristic thick texture from the okra plant, but its famous flavor is the magic gift of filé powder!
Introduction: What is Filé Powder?
Filé powder is the traditional ingredient that gives Louisiana gumbo its unique flavor. It is made from the dried and ground leaves of the sassafras tree (Sassafras albidum).
First used as a seasoning in cooking by the Choctaw tribe of the southeastern U.S., Acadian settlers arriving in that area soon began to use sassafras powder for flavoring and thickening of their traditional stews and soups. However, in modern cooking, a filé powder substitute is often used in making this well-known and delicious Louisiana state dish.
There is some debate whether filé powder contains safrole, an organic compound thought to be a mild carcinogen. Safrole is a banned substance and may be one reason for the substitution of filé powder in cooking. But, while the roots and bark of the sassafras tree do contain safrole, the amount found in the leaves is negligible.
Another reason may be that filé powder is difficult to find outside of natural food and health stores. Though its distinctive root-beer flavor is hard to duplicate, there are several suitable substitutes for filé powder in cooking, and each has its own merits.
Some are better for their flavor characteristics, and others for adding the signature thick texture, but multiple sources seem to all agree on the best alternatives to filé powder. Here is how they rank:
Top 5 Filé Powder Substitutes
Here are our top substitutions for filé powder:
Similarity to filé powder: Okra gives your gumbo the characteristic thick texture you expect. You should use okra to achieve the same rich mouthfeel as gumbo made with filé powder. But, it does not provide quite the same flavor. Okra is the best filé powder substitute to use when the texture is more important than the filé powder’s distinctive flavor.
When and how to substitute: Use okra when a thick texture is the main goal. Use about 2 cups of sliced okra in place of 1 tablespoon of filé powder. Cook all the other vegetables and protein before adding the sliced okra. Simmer until done.
Roux is traditionally made by cooking wheat flour into butter until it forms a soft ball. In southern cooking, bacon fat is usually substituted for butter. Vegetable fat is sometimes used and is excellent if you want to make a vegan gumbo, but it is hard to beat the satisfying taste of bacon.
Roux made this way takes on a dark color as it cooks. The longer you cook it the darker it gets and will affect the color of your gumbo. A medium-brown roux is best, to give your finished gumbo a lovely, deep, and somewhat reddish color.
Similarity to filé powder: A medium-brown roux will produce a unique mouth-watering flavor that only comes from a roux made with bacon fat. It is not quite filé powder, but the taste is every bit as satisfying.
When and how to substitute: A 1 to 1 ratio of fat to flour makes a good roux. You can use anywhere from 3 to 6 ounces of roux per quart of gumbo, depending on the desired thickness. Six ounces will result in a heavy gravy consistency. Prepare the roux first, then add the vegetables and proteins.
Similarity to filé powder: Though it lacks the root-beer flavor of filé powder, cornstarch is a timeless standby for any dish that needs thickening. It will also let the flavors of other ingredients and spices come through.
When and how to substitute: Use 1 tablespoon of cornstarch for each cup of stew. Mix the cornstarch with an equal amount of cold liquid to form a smooth paste. For a lighter consistency, dissolve the cornstarch in ½ to 3/4 cup of water. Add it near the end of cooking for optimum thickening.
4. Arrowroot Powder
Similarity to filé powder: Arrowroot powder makes an excellent Gumbo filé substitute, as it gives a clear quality to the stew and can thicken twice as much as wheat flour. It is especially recommended if you plan to freeze your soup or stew for later use.
Though flavorless, it is also gluten, nut, and protein-free. This is likely why they use arrowroot flour to make the infant biscuits we are all familiar with.
When and how to substitute: Use arrowroot powder when you need a lot of thickening but do not want the heavy sassafras flavor of filé powder. An advantage to a neutral-flavored thickener like arrowroot powder is that it highlights the other flavors in your gumbo. Mix 1 tablespoon of arrowroot powder to 1 tablespoon of water per cup of stew.
Similarity to filé powder: Eggplant has a very similar taste as filé powder, and is the best choice for those who miss that unique root beer flavor. Eggplant is also readily available in most grocery and produce stores.
When and how to substitute: Eggplant is an excellent substitute if you dislike the gluey texture of okra. Cut eggplant into pieces and season as desired. Roast with a drizzle of bacon fat or vegetable oil overtop. Blend the cooked eggplant in a food processor and add to your gumbo for the last few minutes of simmering.
What Else You Can Try
If you live in the southwest and are the adventurous type, you might also try nopal leaves as a substitute for filé powder. The Nopal is a variety of cactus often found in Mexican cooking. Its leaves have a mucus-like texture similar to okra, but the flavor is fresh and tart.
Once peeled and chopped, add it to your gumbo near the end of cooking as a thickener. The collecting, removing of spines, and peeling of nopal leaves is an adventure in itself! If you’re not quite that adventurous but want to give this ingredient a try, you can also buy canned and bottled versions of nopal.
Your Secret Weapon
If the substitution for filé powder leaves you missing that definitive gumbo flavor, you still have a secret weapon. Root beer! After all, sassafras is the original ingredient for making root beer.
Commercially made root beer today does not contain sassafras. While it is of little use as a thickening agent, you can try swapping in root beer for some of the water or other liquids in your recipe.
When you need the best filé powder substitute, the top 5 listed above are the most recommended by cooking experts. They should be your go-to stand-ins when you can’t use the real thing. Plus, they have extra benefits like being gluten-free, non-dairy, and vegan-friendly.
If you can’t find any of the recommended substitutes listed here, don’t despair! Remember that potatoes and rice contain plenty of starch too, and are a great addition to any soup or stew.
And if you still want that authentic sassafras flavor, try using root beer in place of water to mix the cornstarch, or for reducing the roux as you cook.
You’ll get to enjoy that nostalgic and delicious hint of sassafras along with all the other benefits of these top 5 substitutes for filé powder.