Ideal for adding texture rather than taste to dishes, cornstarch is often our favorite ‘go to’ for thickening dishes such as gravies, sauces, soups, chowders and more. Cornstarch is also naturally free from gluten so is suitable for those with gluten intolerances.
Cornstarch was actually first used as a laundry starch when first isolated from corn kernels back in 1842, but it did not take long before cornstarch became a valuable addition to Victorian recipes.
There can sometimes be confusion between corn flour and cornstarch. Corn flour is flour finely ground from the whole of the corn kernel, including its fiber, protein, starch and vitamins and minerals while cornstarch is only ground from the starchy center, or endosperm, of the corn kernel.
This means that cornstarch has a limited nutritional profile and when used properly for thickening, and in smaller amounts, it will be tasteless.
Cornstarch can struggle to thicken acidic sauces such as those with a tomato base or fattier sauces made with egg yolks or butter and for these types of sauces, flour is often a better thickener.
Cornstarch can sometimes be added at the start of cooking and it is more heat stable than other types of thickeners. As cornstarch gelatinizes as it cools, it is useful for foods such as pie fillings. Cornstarch can also be mixed with confectioner’s sugar to prevent it from clumping.
Unfortunately, there are always times when we cannot find cornstarch at the back of the cupboard, or if we do manage to find some, it is certainly past its best. To save having to go to the grocery store - especially if your recipe or gravy is already cooking - then why not take a look at some of the cornstarch substitutes listed below? You may be surprised to find how many of these you may have in your kitchen.We have grouped our cornstarch substitutes into three main types, flour substitutes, starch substitutes and vegetable/natural gum substitutes.
Flours as Cornstarch Substitutes
Because flours also contain starch, they are ideal cornstarch substitutes. However, because flours are ground from the whole grains rather than just the kernels, they contain less starch than cornstarch.
This means you usually need to add between twice and three times the amount of flour to a recipe than you would cornstarch.But, adding too much flour can cause food to become thick and gummy and you may also be left with a floury taste in your mouth, even if you leave it cooking for a few minutes longer to help remove some of the raw flour flavor. Flours will also give a matte finish to foods.
1. All-Purpose Flour
Perhaps one of the most popular cornstarch substitute as most of us always have some in the cupboard and some recipes will call for flour mixed with fat (‘roux’) to be used as a base for gravies or sauces.
When using all-purpose flour, try adding twice the amount of flour in place of cornstarch. You can always add a little extra if needed. It will need mixing into a paste with a little cool water before adding to the recipe to stop it from clumping together.
If you use a whole grain wheat flour, remember that although higher in fiber than white flours, it contains less starch so you will need to add more whole grain flour than you would white.As wheat flours are high in gluten, they are not suitable cornstarch substitutes for gluten free recipes.
2. Corn Flour
Either corn flour or cornmeal can be used as a thickener, at around twice the amount of flour compared to cornstarch. Too much corn flour or cornmeal will add corn flavor to the finished dish, so it is not always useful as an all-purpose thickener.
3. Sorghum flour
Naturally gluten free and containing more protein than cornstarch, sorghum flour also contains iron, niacin, phosphorous and some B vitamins.Ideal for thickening chowders, stews and soups, sorghum flour is traditionally used in the Pacific Islands for thickening stews. Use around twice the amount of sorghum flour in place of cornstarch.
4. Rice Flour
Brown rice flour, white rice flour and sweet glutinous rice flours can all be used as a cornstarch substitute and are all naturally gluten free. White rice flours give a smoother finish while brown rice flour can add some grittiness to a dish, so will not always be the most suitable thickener.
Unlike wheat flours, you can just sprinkle rice flour into the dish and stir it in. Rice flour will thicken almost straight away, making it easy to add some more if it is not thick enough and when mixed with water it will stay colorless, so can be used to thicken clear soups.Allow around two tablespoons of flour per cup of liquid to be thickened and simply sprinkle the rice flour into the liquid you wish to thicken; then stir. It does need to be sprinkled in otherwise it will clump.
Root Starch Substitutes
Root starches are naturally free from gluten and unlike flour thickeners will not leave finished dishes cloudy.Root starches are much more heat sensitive than cornstarch which means that they will start to thicken at lower temperatures and they always need adding to a dish at the end of the cooking, otherwise, if left on the heat, a root starch will actually start thinning.
Made from the tubers of various South American plants, arrowroot is a type of starch which can be used as a cornstarch substitute, and unlike some thickeners it gives clear instead of cloudy jellies. Arrowroot powder is also higher in fiber than cornstarch.
One big advantage of arrowroot is that as a starch, you use the same quantity in recipes as you would for cornstarch. When using arrowroot powder, you will find that it thickens more than flour substitutes, so if you were going to add two tablespoons of all-purpose flour to thicken your soup, then add one tablespoon of arrowroot powder.If you are making a jelly or clear soup, or cream sauces such as custards; then mix arrowroot powder with cool water before adding it to the pot, although take care with dairy-based foods as arrowroot will not always mix well with these. As soon as the dish has thickened, turn the heat off to stop it from thinning.
6. Potato Starch
Unlike potato flour which is made from ground potatoes, potato starch is a refined starch extracted from potatoes. It should be mixed with water to make a slurry before adding to dishes at the end of cooking. Potato starch is ideal for pie fillings, gravies and soups.
Substitute the same amount of potato starch for cornstarch but be careful as potato starch can be more prone to clumping when you mix it up. You should also avoid boiling dishes with potato starch in.Potato starch is richer in vitamin B6 than cornstarch and as a resistant starch, it passes through the gut undigested, not causing any fluctuations in blood sugar levels like cornstarch will.
Extracted from cassava root and similar to arrowroot and potato starch, tapioca needs to be added at the end of cooking. Also known as tapioca starch or tapioca flour, it is also useful for acidic dishes where cornstarch cannot thicken as well. Dishes thickened with tapioca will also keep their texture after being frozen and thawed.Tapioca will give a clearer finish and is naturally free from gluten. You will need to double the quantity of tapioca when used instead of cornstarch.
Otherwise known as Japanese arrowroot or kudzu; kuzu is a starch thickener extracted from the roots of the Kuzu plant. Unlike other types of starches, it is rich in isoflavones, some of which can bring health benefits.Kuzu has a neutral flavor and a half to one teaspoon will thicken one cup of liquid and it should be made into a slurry with cold liquid before adding to anything hot. Once added to the sauce or soup, keep stirring until it changes from milky white to clear.
Natural/Vegetable Gums to Replace Cornstarch
Gums are natural in origin and commonly used commercially, they are also available to us as home cooks. Gums are able to thicken, stabilize and emulsify.
9. Guar Gum
Guar gum is made from the guar or clusterbean plant that is native to India. Not only is guar gum a thickener, but it is also a stabilizer and can be used in gluten free recipes to add structure to baked goods.
Unlike cornstarch and most cornstarch alternatives, guar gum does not need heat for it to thicken, which means it can thicken cold or room temperature liquids. It does take a few minutes for guar gum to hydrate though, which is why it is often recommended that it be heated.
As guar gum has around eight times the thickening ability of cornstarch, you only need to add an eighth of the amount of what you would add of cornstarch to your recipe, and the amount should be carefully measured out to prevent overthickening.
If you want to use guar gum in place of a flour thickener, then one sixteenth of the amount of flour will be needed. For example, two tablespoons of flour will need substituting with three eighths of a teaspoon of guar gum.
The best way to use guar gum is by carefully and evenly sprinkling it directly over the food and then stirring or whisking well to help prevent clumping. If it does clump, then leaving the liquid or sauce to sit for a little while should help.Guar gum will not thicken acidic dishes as well as cornstarch.
10. Xanthan Gum
A common thickener in foods such as salad dressings, ice creams and other frozen foods, xanthan gum is made by fermenting Xanthomonas campestris bacteria with sugar. As a thickener, it is usually used in a concentration of between 0.5% and 1%.
Like guar gum, xanthan gum is used in gluten free cooking and is ideal for thickening gravies with, although extra preparation time is needed for using xanthan gum.
To thicken gravy, mix two tablespoons of xanthan gum with one tablespoon of hot water (for every one cup of gravy) and whisk well until the gum mix is smooth. Add to the gravy and whisk well. Allow the gravy to simmer over a medium low heat and whisk for five minutes.Add further xanthan gum and water until the gravy is at the right consistency and then strain to remove any large lumps of gum. The gravy should then be simmered for another five minutes and even then, there is still a chance of it containing small lumps.
Familiar to those of us who can or make desserts regularly, pectin is a vegetable gum usually derived from apple or citrus peels and can be used as a cornstarch substitute. Interestingly, cornstarch can also be used as a pectin substitute when canning.
No-sugar pectin is ideal for thickening savory sauces and taking around a minute to thicken, it will not alter the taste of the sauce. Add three quarters of a tablespoon of no-sugar pectin for every one cup of sauce, and if the sauce does not contain any dairy, then also add two tablespoons of milk.
For sweet sauces, use a dry-regular pectin and like no-sugar pectin, this will not alter the taste. Just add two tablespoons of dry-regular pectin for every one cup of sugar used in the sauce.
When using pectin to thicken, cook the sauce and season before adding the pectin. You can season before thickening as the pectin will not affect the flavors.For both types of pectin, stir or whisk the pectin into the sauce, bring it to the boil and allow it to boil for one minute before turning the heat off. Stir the sauce and let it cool for a minute or so. The sauce will fully thicken as it cools to 158°F.
A Few Other Cornstarch Substitutes
Other foods you may have floating around in your kitchen that you can use as cornstarch substitutes include instant mashed potato granules/flakes for stews, soups and gravies, while yogurt can be used to thicken Middle Eastern and Eastern European soup recipes.
A tablespoon of ground flaxseeds with four tablespoons of water will replace around two tablespoons of cornstarch. Although ground flaxseeds will give a grittier consistency to a dish, it will also increase its fiber content.Depending on what you are cooking, and how much time you have spare, you can also turn up the simmer slightly, remove the lid from the pan and allow the liquid to reduce naturally and thicken the food. This is not always ideal for gravies though, and there is a risk of them spoiling if thickened this way. Reducing can also concentrate flavors too much.
Just to Summarize
What food or liquid you are thickening will best determine what substitute you use, as of course, some substitutes are better for savory rather than sweet, some work better over heat than others, some will dissolve clear and quickly while others will need extra time and effort whisking/stirring them in.In this article, we have given you a range of cornstarch substitutes available. Some of these are very common and chances are high that you will have these to hand in your cupboard, while others, such as gums can be a little more specialist, but worth investigating for future use.