You may not realize it until the moment presents itself, but the role of cornstarch cannot be overstated when it comes to cooking and baking a vast array of recipes. Whether it's a savory gravy for a main entrée or a sweet mixture for a pie filling, cornstarch can be regarded as the single most effective way to thicken it all up. It turns thinner stock into sauce without changing its flavor, or it can add an irresistibly glossy finish to an almost picture-perfect dessert.
Cornstarch (which can sometimes be referred to as corn flour) is the starch derived from endosperm of the corn kernel. It is a superfine white powder that is commonly used to thicken liquid-based dishes. Because it's solely made from corn kernels, cornstarch is naturally gluten-free, which can't be said for many other thickeners.
This wheat-free thickener can be seamlessly added to dishes without imparting any flavor. That said, if too much is added — or if it is incorporated incorrectly — it can leave behind a raw, unpalatable flavor and it can create a lumpy, gritty texture. When adding cornstarch or any starch-based thickener to a sauce or a soup, it’s important to make a slurry (which is equal parts cornstarch and water) to avoid clumping. You'll also need to keep this in mind when adding substitutes in most cases, as well.
After you've added cornstarch or its substitute to a mixture, it just needs one more thing — heat! This required starch gelatinization will activate the thickening capabilities, helping tighten up whatever it is that you’re cooking or baking. Keep in mind that once your sauce reaches boiling temperatures, it should not simmer for long because this can cause the starch molecules to break.
Sounds fussy, we know. But you have cornstarch to thank for thick sauces, crunchy proteins, tender baked goods, and perfectly set puddings and pies. Seems worth it, right? Despite its finicky nature, cornstarch can be replaced in almost every scenario based on whatever other starches you like or keep on hand. Save that trip to the store because, chances are, you might have an easy ingredient swap already hiding in your pantry.
The best cornstarch substitutes:
These substitutes can help you achieve many of the same effects that cornstarch does. Not all are equal substitutes, however. Keep in mind that you'll need to check proper ratios for an even swap, which we're noting in the sections following this list.
- All-purpose flour: While this substitution is not gluten-free, it is a great option for thickening up sauces, soups, and pie fillings. Plus, it’s thickening capabilities stand the test of time when you're working in a busy kitchen.
- Rice flour: This substitution is great for pan frying or deep frying, and it makes for a great addition to cookie doughs as it tenderizes the final product.
- Potato starch: Like rice flour, this is a good substitution for savory applications like pan frying, deep frying, and sauces. The great thing is that you can add it at the very end of making a sauce rather than using it to make a roux, and your sauce will tighten up in no time.
- Arrowroot starch: The beauty of using arrowroot starch as a substitution for cornstarch in a sauce is that it will still impart that glossy finish. Remember to serve the sauce immediately, as this thickening agent won't hold for too long after being prepared.
- Tapioca starch: This gluten-free, tasteless agent, which is derived from cassava root, is another viable substitution for thickening sauces, tenderizing baked goods, and pan frying. Just keep in mind that it does not withstand heat as well as other substitutions, so avoid boiling it.
Cornstarch substitutes for pan frying and deep frying:
Cornstarch is commonly used to coat objects that are being pan fried or deep fried, mostly because it is an extremely sturdy starch that can lock in the flavor and texture of whatever is being fried. Often, recipes involving proteins like tofu, chicken, eggplant, and fish will call for cornstarch.
If you don’t have cornstarch, you can substitute all-purpose flour in favor for a more routine breading and frying procedure. You can also use rice flour or potato flour, which are commonly used for tempura, and this will create a similar lacy, crunchy texture. Cornstarch is also used in a classic Chinese cooking technique, known as velveting, that makes for that signature, soft and silky texture of stir-fried chicken. For this technique, you can always substitute potato starch or rice flour.
Cornstarch substitutes for sauces:
The beauty of using cornstarch in sauces is that it not only thickens the texture, but it imparts a glossy sheen. While all-purpose flour cannot leave behind that subtle silky shine, it can still tighten a sauce that’s too runny. Keep in mind that flour is not as strong of a thickening agent as cornstarch, so plan to use two times as much flour (a 2:1 swap) to adequately thicken your sauce.
Perfectly thick: Whisk all purpose flour into water to make a slurry, or combine it with butter, to make a beurre manie. Both can be added to your sauce in the beginning of cooking to create a thick, luscious final product.
If you’re looking to maintain a glossy finish on your sauce, you can achieve that with arrowroot starch. In addition to arrowroot, you can also use potato starch or tapioca starch, which are all gluten-free options as well. For all of these options, substitute with a 1:1 ratio for cornstarch and your sauce is on its way to a perfectly thick texture. One thing to note about arrowroot and tapioca starch is that their thickening abilities do not hold up to time, so plan to serve your dish right after they’ve been added.
Cornstarch substitutes for puddings and pie fillings:
The perfect pie is juicy, sweet, and not too runny. Who wants to slice open a pie only to have the filling spill out everywhere? This is why it’s important to use a thickening agent to hold fillings, puddings, custards, and ice cream together. For pie fillings, look no further than an ingredient that you’re already using for your dough — all-purpose flour. Just be cautious; if you add too much, it can leave traces of a raw aftertaste. When it comes to puddings and custards, since arrowroot and tapioca starch can be troublesome with holding and cooking times, opting for all-purpose flour or rice flour is definitely ideal in this scenario. For all of these starches, stick to a 1:1 substitution ratio.
Cornstarch substitutes for baked goods:
One of the more underutilized applications of cornstarch is in baked goods, like cakes and cookies. Cornstarch provides a wonderfully light texture and can help tenderize doughs. You can always substitute all-purpose flour in nearly all baking recipes that call for cornstarch, but you might miss out on some of that delightfully airy texture in whatever you’re baking. Rice flour is particularly great in a shortbread and other cookies as it makes for a super delicate dough. Potato starch is another useful substitution for cake batters. Like previous substitutions, plan to make a 1:1 swap.
Sara Tane is a food writer and private chef based in Brooklyn, New York. She is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education and has written for Cooking Light, MyRecipes, Saveur, and The Feedfeed. She also has a serious thing for oysters.