Salep powder is a key ingredient in traditional Turkish ice cream and Middle Eastern drinks like sahlab.
It adds a uniquely stretchy, chewy texture and rich, velvety mouthfeel.
However, true salep powder is expensive and difficult to source due to overharvesting of the wild orchids used to produce it.
What is Salep Powder?
Salep powder is made from the dried tubers of certain orchid species, namely Orchis mascula and Orchis latifolia. These tubers contain glucomannan, a water-soluble dietary fiber that acts as a thickener. When salep powder is added to liquids like milk or cream, it absorbs water and adds viscosity, creating a smooth, thick texture.
Salep has been used in Turkish and Middle Eastern cuisine for centuries. It's the key ingredient that gives Turkish ice cream (dondurma) its famous stretchiness. It also thickens and adds body to warm winter drinks like sahlab.
Why Replace Salep Powder?
There are a few reasons why cooks and food manufacturers look for salep substitutes:
- Cost - Genuine salep powder is very expensive. It can cost $20 or more for just a few ounces.
- Sustainability - Wild orchids must be overharvested to produce salep, threatening these species. Trade of salep powder is restricted in many countries.
- Availability - With limited supply and regulations on salep exports, it can be difficult to source outside of Turkey and the Middle East.
Substitutes provide a cheaper, easier way to mimic the properties of salep in recipes, while avoiding sustainability issues.
Salep Substitutes for Texture
The defining characteristic of salep is its ability to thicken liquids and create an elastic, "chewy" texture. Here are some alternatives that can help replicate this effect:
One of the most readily available substitutes is cornstarch. It is an excellent thickener and gives a smooth texture. Add 1-2 tbsp cornstarch per cup of liquid. The texture won't be quite as stretchy as salep, but it still works well.
Arrowroot is another easy starch thickener. It produces clearer gels compared to cornstarch. Use about 1 tbsp per cup of liquid.
Tapioca flour is made from cassava root. It provides thickness with a glossy, slightly adhesive texture. Try using 2-3 tbsp per cup of liquid.
This soluble fiber from guar beans produces substantial increases in viscosity. Only 1/4-1/2 tsp guar gum per cup of liquid is needed. Combine with a starch for best results.
Like guar gum, xanthan gum is a powerful thickener. Use just 1/4-1/2 tsp per cup of liquid. It works synergistically with starches.
Gellan gum forms gels with an exceptionally stretchy, elastic texture. Use around 1/2 tsp per cup of liquid. Pair it with guar gum for a salep-like effect.
Key Takeaway: Starches like cornstarch and arrowroot combined with gums like guar or xanthan offer inexpensive, accessible substitutes for the thickening power of salep.
Replicating the Flavor
In addition to its thickening abilities, salep has a rich, distinctive flavor. Here are some ways to mimic that flavor profile:
- Vanilla - Salep has a sweet, aromatic vanilla-like taste. Add vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste.
- Rosewater - Floral rosewater is used in many salep recipes. Add it for an authentic flavor.
- Orange Blossom Water - This distilled water from orange blossoms has a similar perfumed note.
- Mastic - This resin from mastic trees offers a subtly sweet, pine-like accent.
- Cinnamon - Warm cinnamon spice blends well with salep's flavor.
- Coconut - Toasted coconut can provide a nutty, aromatic flavor reminiscent of salep.
Key Takeaway: Vanilla, rosewater, orange blossom water, mastic, cinnamon, and coconut can help replicate the distinctive sweet, floral, and aromatic flavors of salep powder.
Salep Substitutes for Drinks
Drinks like Turkish salep and Middle Eastern sahlab showcase salep's rich flavor and velvety texture. Here are two substitutes suitable for beverages:
For a traditional, starchy texture, use 2-3 tbsp of rice flour per cup of milk. Whisk well while heating to prevent lumps. Finish with vanilla, rosewater, and cinnamon.
Chia seeds create a tapioca-like texture when soaked. For 1 cup milk, soak 1 tbsp chia seeds in 1/4 cup water for 30 minutes before adding to the milk with flavorings.
Key Takeaway: Rice flour and chia seeds both provide thickness and a smooth mouthfeel in warm spiced drinks like salep and sahlab.
Salep Substitutes for Ice Cream
Creating stretchy Turkish-style ice cream (dondurma) is salep powder's claim to fame. Here are two approaches to get a similar effect without salep:
Cornstarch + Gums
Use 2-3 tbsp cornstarch per cup of milk/cream for the ice cream base. Also add 1/2 tsp guar gum and 1/4 tsp xanthan gum to maximize thickness and stretch.
Tapioca Starch + Gellan Gum
Combine 2 tbsp tapioca starch with 1/2 tsp gellan gum per cup of liquid for the base. Gellan gum gives an exceptionally chewy texture.
After churning the ice cream, beat it vigorously with a spoon for 5-10 minutes to develop elasticity. Freeze again before serving.
Key Takeaway: Pairing starches with gums, plus mechanical action, can produce ice cream with the stretchy texture characteristic of salep.
What is the best substitute for getting the stretchy texture of salep?
For the most elastic, chewy texture, try combining gellan gum or guar gum with a starch like tapioca or arrowroot. Beating the ice cream while freezing helps develop that texture.
Is cornstarch an acceptable substitute in Turkish-style ice cream?
Yes, cornstarch can work well in salep-based ice cream recipes. About 2-3 tbsp per cup of liquid should provide enough thickness. Using gums in addition to the cornstarch will enhance elasticity.
Can I make sahlab or salep drink with cornstarch instead of salep powder?
Absolutely. Simply use 2-3 tbsp cornstarch instead of salep per cup of milk for the drink base. Heat gently while stirring to avoid lumps. Finish with rosewater, cinnamon, and other flavors.
What gives Turkish ice cream its stretchy texture?
The stretchiness comes mainly from salep powder. Specifically, the glucomannan fibers in salep absorb water and form a thick, elastic gel that creates distinctive chewy strands when pulled.
While salep powder may be difficult to source, there are many accessible ingredients like starches, gums, and chia seeds that can mimic its rich, thick texture. Combining cornstarch or arrowroot with guar, xanthan, or gellan gums offers an inexpensive substitute in ice creams and beverages.
With the addition of complementary flavors like rosewater, mastic, and coconut, you can achieve a similar sensory experience to recipes using traditional salep.