Your pantry is probably filled with all of the essential baking staples, but beyond flour, sugar, and baking soda, there’s a single ingredient that many of us have but don’t use often: cornstarch.
That powdered thickening agent works like magic when you have a soup or sauce to thicken, but what exactly is cornstarch and why does it work so well?
What is cornstarch?
Cornstarch is a powdered ingredient that was developed in the 1980s and is produced primarily in corn-producing countries such as the United States, India, China, and Brazil. It lasts forever and will not lose quality if stored properly, out of light and in an airtight container.
Scientifically speaking, cornstarch is a carbohydrate extracted from the endosperm of corn. It is made up of starch molecules, which swell when they come into contact with heat and moisture, causing the results to gelatinize. That gelatinization is useful for various recipes that need thickening.
In culinary terms, cornstarch can be useful for many culinary purposes. It is most often used to help thicken rich sauces for mashed potatoes, soups, and gravies. However, it is also a popular ingredient in fruitcakes and is often used by cake decorators for fondant work.
What is the difference between cornstarch, cornmeal and cornmeal?
Cornstarch is often referred to as cornmeal, and although both are powder and both are made from corn, nutritionally, they differ greatly.
Cornmeal is made from whole kernels of corn, while cornstarch is made only from the starchy part of corn called the endosperm. Because the whole grain of corn is ground to make cornmeal, 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.
When comparing flavor, cornmeal offers a natural, earthy corn flavor that is ideal for baking fresh loaves of bread and cookies, while cornstarch tastes nothing.
Cornmeal is made by grinding whole corn kernels, just like cornmeal, only coarser. The degree of grinding will determine the final product, so if you continue to grind cornmeal to a fine powder, the results will turn into cornmeal. Cornmeal is used to cover the bottom of pizza and bagels and is the main ingredient in cornbread.
Although cornstarch is flavorless and offers no nutritional value, the ingredient provides great value when used in cooking.
From cooking a tasty beef and broccoli dinner for the family to baking delicious fruit tarts, cornstarch is a great addition to your pantry.
How to use cornstarch for cooking
Cornstarch can be used in many cooking applications, but the most obvious one is thickening. Cooks sometimes make a cornstarch mixture by mixing water and cornstarch to create a thick white liquid.
The suspension is then added to soups or sauces and helps to thicken the food fairly quickly. Adding powdered cornstarch directly to the soup will definitely cause lumps, so don’t skip the porridge. While many turn to butter and flour to create a roux for thickening purposes, a cornstarch suspension differs greatly.
Aside from the ingredients, one significant difference is that the roux is cooked first, then the liquid is slowly added. The more liquid you add, the more runny the sauce or soup will become. A cornstarch slurry is usually added at the end to help thicken the food. So if you’re making clam chowder and it’s too thin, add a small amount of slurry and watch it thicken.
Cornstarch is also used in a traditional Chinese technique called velveting, which combines egg whites, rice wine, and cornstarch to create a marinade for meat before it is stir-fried. The method helps retain moisture and produces juicy, tender results. Recipes like beef and broccoli also use cornstarch to help thicken sauces for restaurant-worthy results.
You’ll also notice that the ingredient is popular in fruitcakes. The semi-transparent results and flourless flavor give cornstarch an edge in desserts like blueberry apple pie. Lastly, cornstarch is a great cake decorating ingredient if you need to dust surfaces while working with fondant that might be a bit sticky.
The next time you need to thicken up a sauce, or are in the mood for a spicy stir fry dinner, grab that yellow container of cornstarch and get cooking!
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