Cornstarch vs baking powder – are the two interchangeable? Spoiler alert – they’re not!
These two ingredients may look the same, but their uses are very different. In this article, we’ll first explore how baking powder and cornstarch are fundamentally different, what each of them does, and what their common uses are in the kitchen.
So, is cornstarch the same as baking powder? Let’s find out!
What is the Difference Between Cornstarch and Baking Powder?
Is cornstarch a leavening agent? Nope. Essentially, cornstarch is a thickening agent – it’s used to thicken liquids like puddings, pie fillings, sauces and stews. Baking powder is a leavening agent – it helps baked goods rise, making them light and fluffy. While baking powder may contain cornstarch, one cannot be exchanged for the other!
What Does Cornstarch Do?
Cornstarch (or corn flour if you’re in the UK) was initially created in the mid 1800’s and used as a laundry aid to starch and clean fabrics. It eventually found its way into culinary uses where it is still applied today in baking and cooking alike.
Is cornstarch the same as baking powder? Unfortunately, no – cornstarch does not help with leavening like baking powder does. Cornstarch is primarily used as a thickening agent. Cornstarch is often used in cooking and baking to thicken liquids in custard, creams and puddings as well as gravies and stews.
Derived from corn, cornstarch is a popular ingredient in cooking as it is gluten-free, making it an essential ingredient for those with gluten allergies and sensitivities. Additionally, it has twice the thickening power as flour and lasts pretty much indefinitely when stored properly.
How To Use Cornstarch
Cornstarch has numerous applications in the kitchen. Here are some of the popular uses:
Cornstarch is often used when baking fruit pies as it helps the filling and juices set, making for easier slicing and sectioning. Cornstarch is activated when heated, causing the starches in it to bond with the liquid and swell, leading to a more stable structure.
To use cornstarch in pie filling, you’ll simply toss your fruit with it – the cornstarch won’t activate until it is heated to a simmer.
Pudding and Custard
Cornstarch also helps in thickening desserts such as pudding, custard, and pastry creams. Most often you’ll begin by mixing sugar, salt, and cornstarch, and gradually adding in liquid ingredients (such as milk and cream) while cooking over medium heat, whisking or stirring to thicken the mixture.
Cookies and Brownies
Cornstarch can also be used in cookie dough to make it less sticky and help the cookies hold their shape. It won’t make them tougher like adding extra flour will. Cornstarch can help prevent cookies from spreading and is especially useful for making chewy cookies.
Adore chewy brownies as well? Add in some cornstarch for extra fudgelike goodness that can also be gluten-free.
That’s right – you can use cornstarch in lieu of eggs in certain ice cream recipes. This gelato-like Sicilian-style method uses cornstarch to create ice cream with a smooth, creamy texture, without the added headache of making eggy custard.
Cornstarch helps stabilize ice cream and prevent ice crystals from forming. The result? A creamier, smoother frozen dessert you won’t be able to resist even in the chill of winter.
Cornstarch can also be useful in savory dishes, being added to stir fries to thicken sauces as well as gravies, stews and soups. When used in this manner, you’ll often want to make a slurry first. (Pour that cornstarch directly into the hot liquid and you’ll be sorry – it will immediately clump up.) A slurry will prevent the starch from clumping.
To create a slurry, you’ll need to combine the cornstarch with cold or room-temperature liquid (such as water or broth) and whisk until smooth before adding it to the hot liquid. Now your soups and stews will be thick, hearty, and clump-free.
Cornstarch is often used as an ingredient in coatings for fried foods. Whether it be fried chicken, potato wedges or crispy onion rings, cornstarch will help give these items their classic crunchy texture.
Cornstarch absorbs moisture, contributing to the crispy texture of these fried delights, in addition to holding the batter together and helping prevent it from falling apart during the frying process. In addition, cornstarch helps keep foods like these tender, protecting the item from direct contact with hot oils for a more gentle frying.
Simply mix cornstarch with seasonings and flour to coat these culinary delights before frying. You’ll be obsessed with the mouthwatering results.
What Does Baking Powder Do?
Baking powder is a leavening agent that aids in helping baked goods rise. It is made from baking soda (or bicarbonate of soda as it is called in the UK), an acid (such as cream of tartar) and an anti-caking agent (usually cornstarch). When mixed with liquids or wet ingredients it forms a chemical reaction releasing carbon dioxide and lots of little bubbles, causing baked treats to rise and fluff up.
Compositionally, baking soda is the primary leavening agent, while the acid reacts with the baking soda to produce carbon dioxide when wet. This reaction then causes the rising. The cornstarch simply acts to increase the shelf life of baking powder and prevents it from clumping.
Once opened, baking powder typically lasts from six months to a year, unlike cornstarch which lasts nearly forever.
Baking powder enhances all manner of baked goods from waffles and cakes to biscuits and quick bread. Let’s explore some of its common baking applications below.
How To Use Baking Powder
Baking powder is quite handy in a variety of baking activities. Here are some of its most popular uses:
Cakes and Cupcakes
Baking powder is used in cakes and cupcakes to help them rise – leading to airy, fluffy textures. No more sunken cakes or flat cupcakes. Just be sure to use the correct amount – overuse of leavening agents can lead to a shrinking cake post-baking.
Quick Breads and Muffins
Baking powder has the same effect in muffins and quick breads, helping them to rise and preventing them from becoming overly dense or heavy. Ever found yourself with sunken banana pudding instead of banana bread? Leavening agents such as baking powder help to prevent this.
Pancakes and Waffles
If fluffy isn’t the first adjective that comes to mind when you think of pancakes and waffles, you may need more baking powder in your life. Leavening agents like baking powder are essential to create these fluffy textures.
Those little bubbles rising in your pancakes – that’s baking powder at work. You’ll appreciate the resulting fluffiness in every syrupy bite.
Are Cornstarch and Baking Powder Interchangeable?
The short answer is no! Cornstarch thickens and helps hold baked goods together while baking powder helps baked goods rise, leading to light fluffy textures.
Is cornstarch a leavening agent? Nope, definitely not. Cornstarch is just a thickening agent, while baking powder is a leavening agent that causes rising in baking.
A Note About Terminology
It should be noted that different countries refer to these ingredients differently. What we call baking soda in the US is often referred to as bicarbonate of soda in the UK. Similarly, what we call cornstarch in the US is known as corn flour in the UK. To further confuse things, corn flour in the US is something entirely different from cornstarch.
In the United States, cornstarch is made from just the endosperm of the corn kernel, while UK corn flour is made from the whole grain of corn (including endosperm, the bran and the germ). In the UK they refer to US corn flour as corn meal.
Put simply this means:
- US cornstarch = UK corn flour (both made from just the corn endosperm)
- US corn flour = UK corn meal (both made from whole grain of corn)
- US baking soda = UK bicarbonate of soda (an ingredient in baking powder)
- US baking powder = UK baking powder (yes, this one is the same!)
Here’s the long and short of it: cornstarch and baking powder have very different applications in the kitchen. Cornstarch is for thickening; baking powder is for leavening. Cornstarch can be used for a variety of culinary purposes from thickening puddings and custards to stews and sauces. Additionally, it can be used to make chewy brownies and cookies, prevent cookies from spreading or solidify pie fillings. Even more usages include adding it to stabilize ice cream or as a coating in fried foods for extra crispy results.
Baking powder, simply and essentially, helps baked goods to rise – all bakers should have some on hand. Everything from pancakes to cupcakes benefit from this nifty ingredient, leading to light and airy temptations you won’t want to resist – even if you could.