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So, What Is Cornstarch?

Cornstarch placed over a counter with a wooden spoon.
Pawarun Chitchirachan/Shutterstock.com

Your pantry is probably lined with all the essential baking staples— but beyond flour, sugar, and baking soda, there’s one unique ingredient many of us have but don’t often use: cornstarch.

That powdered thickening agent works like magic when you have a soup or gravy to thicken, but what exactly is cornstarch, and why does it work so well?

What Is Cornstarch?

A container of Rumford cornstarch.
Miro Vrlik Photography

Cornstarch is a powdered ingredient that was developed in the 1800s and is mainly produced in countries that grow corn, like the United States, India, China, and Brazil. It lasts forever and won’t lose quality if stored correctly, out of the light, and in an air-tight container.

Scientifically speaking, cornstarch is a carbohydrate pulled from the endosperm of corn. It’s comprised of starch molecules, which swell when in contact with heat and moisture, causing the results to gelatinize. That gelatinization comes in handy for various recipes that need to be thickened.

Argo 100% Pure Corn Starch

Great for thickening soups and sauces.

Culinarily speaking, cornstarch can be handy for many cooking purposes. It is most often used to help thicken rich gravy for mashed potatoes, soups, and sauces. However, it is also a popular ingredient in fruit pies and is often used by cake decorators for fondant work.

What’s the Difference Between Cornstarch, Corn Flour, and Cornmeal?

One bowl of corn flour and one bowl of cornstarch.

Cornstarch is often referred to as cornflour, and although both are powder and both are made from corn, nutritionally, they differ greatly.

Corn flour is made from whole corn kernels, while cornstarch is made from only the starchy part of the corn called the endosperm. Because the entire corn kernel is ground up to make corn flour, the pale yellow powder contains vitamins, minerals, protein, and fiber, according to Healthline. Cornstarch, on the other hand, is a much more refined product, producing a white powder with no protein or fiber.

Bobs Red Mill Corn Flour

Great for breads, waffles and biscuits.

When comparing taste, cornflour offers an earthy natural corn flavor, great for baking loaves of bread and fresh biscuits, while cornstarch doesn’t taste like anything.

Bob's Red Mill Corn Meal

Just what you need for homemade cornbread!

Cornmeal is made by grinding whole corn kernels, just like cornflour, only coarser. The degree of milling will determine the final product, so if you continue grinding cornmeal into a fine powder, the results will become cornflour. Cornmeal is used to line the bottom of pizza and bagels and is the main ingredient in cornbread.

Although cornstarch is flavorless and doesn’t offer any nutritional value, the ingredient does bring great value when used in the kitchen.

From cooking up a tasty beef and broccoli dinner for the family to baking lovely fruit pies, cornstarch makes a great addition to your pantry.

How to Use Cornstarch for Cooking

A plate of beef and broccoli that has been thickened by cornstarch.
Brent Hofacker/Shutterstock.com

Cornstarch can be used in many cooking applications, but the most obvious is for thickening purposes. Cooks will sometimes make a cornstarch slurry by mixing water and cornstarch to create a thick white liquid.

The slurry is then added to soups or sauces and helps thicken the meal pretty rapidly. Adding powdered cornstarch directly to the soup will undoubtedly cause lumps, so don’t skip the slurry. While many turn to butter and flour to create a roux for thickening purposes, a cornstarch slurry differs greatly.

Aside from ingredients, one significant difference is that roux is cooked first, then the liquid is added slowly. The more liquid you whisk in, the thinner your sauce or soup will become. A cornstarch slurry is typically added at the end to help thicken your meal. So, if you’re making chowder and it’s too thin, add a small amount of slurry and watch as it becomes thicker.

Cornstarch is also used in a traditional Chinese technique called velveting, which combines egg white, rice wine, and cornstarch to create a marinade for meat before it’s stir-fried. The method helps lock in the moisture and produces juicy and tender results. Recipes like beef and broccoli also use cornstarch to help thicken sauces for restaurant-worthy results.

YOSUKATA Carbon Steel Wok Pan

For all your stir-frying needs!

You’ll also notice the ingredient is popular in fruit pies. The semi-transparent results and flourless taste give cornstarch an advantage in desserts like blueberry and apple pie. Finally, cornstarch is an excellent ingredient in cake decorating if you need to powder surfaces while working with fondant that might be a little sticky.

Next time you need to thicken a sauce, or you’re in the mood for a spicy stir-fried dinner, grab that yellow container of cornstarch and get to cooking!

Emilee Unterkoefler Emilee Unterkoefler
Emilee Unterkoefler is a freelance food writer, hiking enthusiast, and mama with over ten years of experience working in the food industry. Read Full Bio »
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