The best cornstarch substitutes for cooking and baking

Don’t fret 一 there are plenty of pantry staples that you can use in place of this ingredient

Published August 3, 2021 11:59AM (EDT)

 (Linda Xiao / Food52)
(Linda Xiao / Food52)

This story first appeared on Food52, an online community that gives you everything you need for a happier kitchen and home – that means tested recipes, a shop full of beautiful products, a cooking hotline, and everything in between!

The Food52 Hotline has been around for nearly a decade, so it's no surprise that some of the most common cooking questions have come up again and again. How to substitute cornstarch is one of them. Our community has been quick to share their favorite substitutes for cornstarch). Tapioca flour and arrowroot powder are fan favorites, but user Ophelia notes that tapioca flour and powder are more expensive products and have a tendency to clump quite easily. Other users have pointed out that all-purpose flour can work as a thickening agent like cornstarch. For a gluten-free substitute for cornstarch, our savvy community members recommend potato or rice starch. With so many suggestions, we wanted to find out once and for all what is the best substitute for cornstarch.

It should come as no surprise that the particular cornstarch substitute you choose should depend on what you're cooking or baking. The type of ingredient needed for a coating on something that you'll be deep-frying may be different from what is best for thickening a sauce or soup

Today, we'll be tackling this topic from the ground up! We studied a number of different ingredients that work as a substitute for cornstarch, including all-purpose flour, rice flour, arrowroot powder, potato starch, and tapioca starch. Find out which is best for your recipe and the right ratio for a seamless substitution. Your pudding can (and will!) thank you later.

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Cooking and baking with cornstarch

Before we start substituting cornstarch, let's get to know it a bit, shall we? Here are a handful of questions we see all the time about the ingredient.

What is cornstarch?

Just what it sounds like — the starch from corn! Or, if you want to get nitty-gritty about it, a superfine powder, ground from the endosperm of the corn kernel. If you want to get nerdy-geeky about it, cornstarch was invented/discovered/created as a happy accident in the mid 19th century by a guy named Thomas Kingsford. But really, the product dates back to at least 1,000 B.C., when Egyptian pharaohs would use the starch from various grains to act as an adhesive for cosmetics and paper. Fast-forward to 1899, when the Kingsford company merged with Argo Corn Starch, which is the bright yellow container of starch that you're most likely familiar with today.

Is corn flour the same as cornstarch?

Depends where you're asking the question. Cornflour in the United Kingdom is the same as cornstarch in the United States (just look at this turkey gravy recipe from Jamie Oliver). But, corn flour in the United States refers to an even finer version of fine cornmeal (dried, then ground corn); according to Bob's Red Mill, it produces "less crumbly [cornbread] than one made with cornmeal."

How do people use cornstarch in cooking and baking?

Phew. We'd be here all day if I listed all of them, but here are some big ones:

  • Thickener in fruit pie filling. Figure 1/4 cup per 5 cups fruit, depending on the ripeness.
  • Thickener in pudding. Estimate 1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons per 1 cup dairy, depending on your preference.
  • Thickener in ice cream. Popular with gelato, this method produces an especially creamy-chewy frozen dessert, and all without egg yolks.
  • Extra-crispy crust for anything fried. Hello, hot chicken! You can simply coat a protein or vegetable in cornstarch then fry, or make it part of a dredging station.
  • Supplement to flour in shortbread. Using cornstarch as a dry ingredient in baking creates an extra-tender crumb; it's the same reason you'll see confectioners' sugar in shortbread — it contains cornstarch!
  • Marinade for stir-fried meat or seafood. This Chinese technique, known in English as velveting, mixes cornstarch with egg whites to form a protective coating, keeping the protein silky and tender.
  • Slurry for soups and sauces. Mix cornstarch with a small amount of water to form a thin paste, then pour this into a hot liquid. 1 tablespoon will thicken about 2 cups of liquid, depending on the recipe.
  • Scrambled eggs? Yep, it's Genius. Adding a cornstarch-milk mixture to eggs before scrambling means they can cook fast, without getting rubbery.

Can I add cornstarch directly to a liquid to thicken?

So glad you asked. No! But, even if I sprinkle it carefully on top? Still no. Adding a spoonful of cornstarch (or any of its substitutes, see below) directly to a large amount of liquid will form clumps of no return. Form a thin paste with a small amount of liquid first, then add this mixture to the larger amount of liquid on the stove.

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Best cornstarch substitutes

So, you ran out of cornstarch. It happens. Here are five ingredients that are happy to jump in, plus everything you need to know about each.

All-purpose flour

Though all-purpose wheat flour has roughly half the thickening prowess of cornstarch, it still shows up in a lot of the same recipes — say, as a thickener in fruit pie filling, or cooked with butter to form a thickening roux for gravies or soups. Estimate 2 tablespoons of flour for every 1 tablespoon of cornstarch in a recipe. It holds up very well when cooked and gives whatever it thickens an opaque look.

Rice flour

Not to be confused with glutinous or sweet rice flour, which is used for mochi. As with wheat flour, you can estimate 2 tablespoons rice flour for every 1 tablespoon of cornstarch. Our contributor Alice Medrich loves to use it to thicken pastry cream and tenderize shortbread crusts.

Arrowroot powder

This mild-tasting starch looks a lot like cornstarch and is equally strong when it comes to thickening. Use in slurry situations (read sauces) and figure 1 tablespoon arrowroot for every 1 tablespoon cornstarch. A couple caveats, though: "Arrowroot should only be used when the sauce is to be served within 10 minutes or preparation," according to "The Joy of Cooking." "It will not hold, nor will it reheat."

Potato starch

Estimate 1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons potato starch for every 1 tablespoon cornstarch. Like arrowroot, this starch's thickening powers don't last long beyond cooking, so eat as soon as possible. Its delicate flavor makes it great for sauces. You'll also see it pop up in baking recipes, too, like this chocolate-nut sponge cake.

Tapioca starch

This neutral-flavored ingredient comes from the cassava root. It's less potent than cornstarch, so you'll need about 2 tablespoons tapioca for every 1 tablespoon cornstarch. Unlike cornstarch, which begins to break down when frozen, tapioca stays strong. Avoid boiling, which would make the thickened sauce stringy.

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How to substitute cornstarch in recipes 

The good news is: Cornstarch can almost always be replaced. Here are a few of our favorite cornstarch-y recipes, and which substitutes make the most sense for each. See quantity conversions for each ingredient in the section above.

What can I use instead of cornstarch when frying?

Cornstarch's relatively high amylose content makes it a champ at creating crispy crusts. Rice flour and potato flour make good substitutes, though all-purpose flour will work in a pinch.

Recipe: General Tso's Cauliflower

What can I use instead of cornstarch for sauces?

Combining cornstarch with water to create a slurry, then pouring that mixture into a cooking liquid, is a tried-and-true sauce technique. In lieu of cornstarch, call in arrowroot powder or tapioca starch; just make sure to use the sauces right away.

Recipe: Homemade Teriyaki Sauce

What can I use instead of cornstarch for puddings?

Cornstarch often teams up with egg yolks to thicken a custard or pudding. Swapping in all-purpose or rice flour is your best bet here, since tapioca, potato starch, and arrowroot powder can be finicky with respect to cooking and holding.

Recipe: Homemade Vanilla Pudding

What can I use instead of cornstarch for fruit pie fillings?

Cornstarch is my go-to thickener for fruit pies, but for a lot of people, it's all-purpose flour (after all, you already have the ingredient out for your pie crust). Beyond that, tapioca starch is a smart replacement.

Recipe: Cherry Pie Filling

What can I use instead of cornstarch in baked goods?

Cornstarch adds a crumbly, melt-in-your-mouth tenderness to baked goods. You can swap in all-purpose flour, but the texture won't be as lovely. Rice flour is a great swap in cookie recipes and potato starch is lovely in cakes, as it encourages moistness and extends shelf life.

Recipe: Cornstarch Sugar Cookies

By Emma Laperruque

MORE FROM Emma Laperruque

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