We’ve all heard of cornstarch, whether or not we’ve actively used it in baking. This fine powder is tasteless, scentless, and sometimes confused with baking powder – but what does it really do? Even more importantly, what is the purpose of cornstarch in baking?
Let us explore a brief history of cornstarch, what it does, and its applications in baking as well as some additional culinary uses. Ready, set, here we go!
History and Household Uses
Did you know cornstarch was invented in the mid 1800’s and was initially used as a laundry aid? It’s true! Cornstarch can still be employed this way, but its primary uses today are mainly kitchen-oriented.
In addition to degreasing and starching clothes, the culinary uses of cornstarch include thickening, acting as a substitute for certain ingredients, and keeping items from sticking to one another.
That’s right – cornstarch is also an anti-caking agent. You’ll find it’s added to a variety of items from powdered sugar to shredded cheese and jelly beans to prevent them sticking together. However, this isn’t where the average baker will most often use cornstarch.
What’s the Purpose of Cornstarch in Baking?
Most often, cornstarch (known as corn flour in the UK) is used as a thickening agent. When cornstarch is added to various ingredients, the starch molecules will absorb the liquid when heated, thereby thickening the mixture. During cooking, this starch can expand six to ten times its size. Impressive, no?
Once cooled, cornstarch then helps the mixture set and solidify. In addition to these properties, this powdery white starch is virtually tasteless, so adding it won’t alter the flavor of baked goods. Furthermore, cornstarch is made completely from corn (the corn endosperm to be exact) making it a helpful component in baking gluten-free goods.
Cornstarch can be used in everything from baking to cooking and frying. In baking, it has a variety of uses, from thickening pie fillings and puddings to being added to shortbread and cakes to give them their texture. Let’s examine this in further detail.
Uses of Cornstarch in Baking
What are the uses of cornstarch in baking? Well, there are quite a few – here are some of the cornstarch’s most popular uses and some lesser-known ones too!
Cornstarch in cake? Absolutely! Cornstarch can be added to cakes to give them a more tender texture. How to do this? When using all-purpose flour, simply remove two tablespoons and substitute with two tablespoons of cornstarch for every cup. The result will be a perfectly soft cake.
Trust us, once you try it, you’ll use cornstarch in cakes regularly.
Cupcakes and Muffins
Similarly, cornstarch can be added to cupcakes and muffins to give them a softer, more tender texture and delicate crumb. Consider adding to everything from vanilla cupcakes to decadent peach and buttercream cupcakes.
Additionally, vegan cupcakes can be made with the help of cornstarch, as it can be used in place of eggs.
Perhaps you’re cooking for vegans or simply fresh out of eggs – either way, cornstarch is your new best friend. You can often use a tablespoon of cornstarch mixed with three tablespoons of warm water as a substitute for an egg. Try it with cookies, cakes, pancakes, brownies, and more.
Ever cut a fresh pie only to have all the filling spill out? Not pretty, is it? Adding cornstarch to pie filling can help give it a more stable structure, helping the filling and juices to set. The cornstarch isn’t activated until heated so you can simply toss your fruit with it when making your pie filling or mix it with the sugar. The cornstarch will activate when the filling is heated to a simmer and presto – no more liquidy pie fillings.
However, cornstarch should not be used with pie filling if the fruit is acidic and you’re not planning on eating it right away, as cornstarch can cause a breakdown of texture over a longer period with acidic ingredients. Making lemon, lime, or rhubarb pie? Opt for a different thickening agent, like arrowroot powder or tapioca starch instead.
Did you know you can add cornstarch to waffle batter to make extra crispy waffles? Voilà – soggy waffles will pain you no more!
Whether you’re making Belgian waffles for breakfast or chicken and waffles for a late night snack, you’ll love having this trick in your back pocket.
Pudding and Custard
Cornstarch also helps thicken ingredients in custards, puddings and fillings like pastry creams. To do so, you’ll mix the dry ingredients (sugar, salt, cornstarch, etc.) and gradually add in your wet ingredients (milk, cream, etc.) while whisking or stirring over medium heat. This way, the mixture will thicken without clumping.
Cookies and Brownies
Cornstarch is a great addition to cookies and brownies, giving them a more tender or fudgier texture. Adding cornstarch to cookie dough can prevent cookies from spreading. Love chewy cookies and brownies? Cornstarch will make your chewiest dreams come true.
Additionally, cornstarch can be used to make vegan or gluten-free versions of these baked treats. Ever tried Brazilian biscoitos de maizena or sequilhos? Also known as cornstarch cookies, this minimal ingredient, gluten-free cookies taste similar to shortbread and are light, buttery, and airy.
Gluten-free brownies are also possible with the help of cornstarch! Fudgy textures can be achieved and complemented with nuts and pecans. Who needs gluten anyways?
Cornstarch is also a useful ingredient in many vegan brownie recipes, due to its ability to be substituted for eggs.
Cake Flour Substitute
In need of that finely milled, silky substance known as cake flour? This delicate flour, lower in protein than all-purpose flour, is essential for the tender crumb of sponge and angel food cakes. Yet, if you don’t use cake flour all that often, your flour may have already expired. In fact, once opened, cake flour lasts just six months to a year.
Don’t worry! Adding a few spoonfuls of cornstarch to all-purpose flour will remedy the issue by making a quick cake flour substitute. To substitute one cup of cake flour, add two tablespoons of cornstarch to ¾ cup and two tablespoons of all-purpose flour.
Try using this mixture for everything from cakes and cupcakes to scones and pancakes. The result will be a lighter, fluffier baked good.
So you’ve added in your cornstarch to give your cake the perfect texture and now it’s time to add a little fondant. To keep fondant from sticking to countertops, dust your work surface lightly with cornstarch.
Cornstarch is both colorless and flavorless, so it won’t alter the taste or look of your fondant, but it’ll make working with it much more manageable!
Other Cornstarch Uses
Baking with cornstarch is an easy and rewarding process, but cornstarch has other uses in the kitchen. Let’s examine a few non-baking related uses for cornstarch.
Did you know you can create one of the silkiest forms of ice cream by using cornstarch instead of eggs? This Italian style ice cream bypasses the need for custard-making and egg juggling. Adding cornstarch to cream and milk results in a creamier, smoother ice cream. Why? Cornstarch stabilizes the liquid and prevents the formation of ice crystals.
Stews, Sauces, and Stir Fries
Another of cornstarch’s apt uses is as a thickener in soups, stews, gravies, sauces, and stir-fries. But don’t just heap in a spoonful to the boiling liquid – you’ll just end up with a clumpy mess. To use cornstarch this way, you’ll need to first make a slurry.
To make a slurry, combine cornstarch with a small amount of liquid that is either cold or room temperature and whisk until smooth. Add this to your simmering sauce or liquid and whisk.
Abracadabra! Watery stews and sauces will vanish before your eyes.
Last, but not least, cornstarch is an essential element in fried foods like fried chicken, potatoes, or fried okra. Cornstarch helps absorb moisture from the batter, leading to delicately, crispy crunchy textures.
In addition, cornstarch aids in keeping the batter together and preventing it from falling off during frying. Many recipes simply call for mixing cornstarch with accompanying seasonings and flour, coating your chosen item, and frying until golden brown.
The flaky, indulgent results will satisfy all your savory cravings.
Who knew cornstarch had so many applications in the kitchen? Well, you do now. Cornstarch has a laundry list of uses (yes, pun intended) including everything from cakes, muffins, cookies and brownies, to fruit pies, waffles, puddings and custards. Out of cake flour or eggs? Cornstarch will make a quick substitute. In still more applications, cornstarch can be used to make ice cream, keep fondant from sticking to a work surface, coat fried foods or be implemented in savory dishes like stews, stir-fries, sauces and gravies – just don’t forget to make a slurry first.
If you’re interested to find out the science behind cornstarch, take a look at this rather interesting video!