A guide to thickeners: cornstarch, tapioca, arrowroot, potato starch and flour

As Harold McGee explains in “On Foods and Cooking,” starches are produced of lengthy chains of glucose sugar molecules that are connected to each and every other. Starches are useful in thickening mainly because of the way they behave in the presence of very hot drinking water. He summarizes the procedure in “Keys to Fantastic Cooking”: “When heated in a liquid, starch granules soak up water, swell, and release long, tangly starch molecules, all things that induce the liquid to thicken.”

McGee states that cooking for an prolonged period, bringing the combination to a boil or vigorous stirring will inevitably skinny out the mixture, which you may well or may possibly not observe based on how thick what you are generating is. In a usual sauce, you may possibly not discover the thinning a lot, other than a fascinating smoothness at which issue the starch particles are no more time detectable. Abnormal stirring of anything thicker like a custard can crack it down.

Not all starches are produced equivalent. How they execute relies upon mainly on the dimension of their starch granules (layers of starch molecules packed together) and the size of their starch molecules, as effectively as irrespective of whether there are other molecules that could possibly impede the starches from accomplishing their do the job. Basically talking, that impacts how a great deal of the component you want, how rapidly it thickens and at what temperature it happens. Just about every starch has a gelation assortment, when it swells, types an amorphous network with drinking water and starts to thicken. Below, you are going to obtain that temperature, as specified by McGee, as nicely as what else you need to have to know about your selections.


Flour is not a pure starch, indicating there are other proteins and fats that interfere with the starches’ capacity to thicken, which is why it requires additional to be additional to a recipe to integrate as correctly as some of the other options, McGee claims. A different difficulty: Flour has to be cooked to flavor very good. In “The Food Lab,” J. Kenji López-Alt claims that cooking the flour in butter or oil (to make a roux) first gets out that uncooked taste. The body fat keeps the starches from clumping together prematurely, way too. Once you’re carried out cooking the flour, you can incorporate it to your soup or sauce, leaving the unwanted fat to soften absent and the starches to disperse. Preserve in mind that the thickening electricity of a roux decreases the darker it receives. Foodstuff thickened with flour, McGee suggests, will be opaque and matte. Gelation temp: 126 to 185 degrees Fahrenheit.

Employs: Stay clear of flour as a thickener in fillings, suggests Lauren Chattman in “The Baking Solution Reserve.” It can form gluten and turn rough. Flour is a go-to for a cause in gravies, claims Nicole Rees in Wonderful Cooking. It doesn’t make a difference if the gravy is opaque, and the flour will support the gravy keep its integrity on reheating. And considering the fact that you can make a gravy with unwanted fat or drippings from roasted meat, you can use them to cook dinner the flour. For immediate thickening in sauces and gravies, look at Wondra, a pre-gelatinized reduced-protein flour that dissolves swiftly in scorching or chilly liquids.

Flour retains up nicely in more time-cooked dishes, including gumbo or a braise these as boeuf bourguignon, and can incorporate a lot more nutty flavor when browned in the pot as section of the roux.


Contrary to wheat flour, cornstarch is a pure starch. That makes it a extra productive thickener. To attain its comprehensive probable, while, it wants to get just about boiling. McGee notes that cornstarch also has a distinct taste because of to its processing technique, which is why, even further than the hazard of building a mixture also thick, you never want to overdo it. Cornstarch lends a milky look to completed dishes. Gelation temp: 144 to 180 degrees Fahrenheit.

Works by using: “Cornstarch provides fruit a satiny, less shiny gloss than tapioca. It won’t clump up and dry out when uncovered to incredibly hot air, as tapioca will, so it is the organic selection for open up-best baked fruit desserts,” claims Chattman. In particular with cornstarch, do pay back consideration to the typical instructions that advocate seeing juices effervescent, which signifies the starch has gotten sizzling more than enough to thicken. Cornstarch especially shines in some thing like a stir-fry sauce, many thanks to its translucent shimmer, Rees suggests.

Cornstarch functions nicely in soups and stews, and it lends a considerably translucent physical appearance that is rich but not muddy (consider hot-and-bitter soup).

Cornstarch, as perfectly as flour, will help puddings and custards by allowing the eggs to adequately set at a larger temperature, which usually will get dangerously close to in which the eggs can curdle. The addition of starch staves off the curdling, and flour and cornstarch are fantastic here due to the fact they can tolerate better temperatures and set and thicken perfectly when cooled.


This is the initial of a couple tuber and root starches to take into account. Arrowroot is identical to cornstarch in that it requirements to reach a fairly high temperature to thicken, creating it a good swap for cornstarch. It turns distinct when cooked, with a neutral taste. According to McGee, it generates a fewer stringy finish outcome than the other tuber and root starches beneath. However, it can kind an unappealing texture when combined with dairy, says Sarena Shasteen, culinary content specialist at Bob’s Red Mill. Gelation temp: 140 to 187 degrees Fahrenheit.

Uses: Like cornstarch, arrowroot operates perfectly when you want a more clear shimmer in something like a stir-fry sauce. Similarly, try out it in the fruit filling for a crumble or cobbler.


“Unlike cornstarch, tapioca commences to swell and soak up liquids long right before it is boiling-scorching, delivering greater thickening energy in low- to no-warmth applications,” Stella Parks points out in excess of on Serious Eats. This neutral-flavored starch arrives from the root of cassava, which is critical to seem for on the package, Parks claims, since tapioca starch from Asia might be made from other vegetation whose starches gel in another way. Tapioca lends a distinct, shiny visual appearance, but can also skew stringy in water, McGee claims, generating it a greater option for puddings. That inclination for stringiness is one more motive tapioca is normally sold in pearls that are now partly swollen with water, so that they promptly soften and finish thickening. Gelation temp: 126 to 150 levels Fahrenheit.

Makes use of: Tapioca “is flavorless and presents fruit and fruit juices a shiny glow,” Chattman states, generating it a preferred different to cornstarch in pies. Or get the greatest of the two worlds: “Juices thickened with equally cornstarch and tapioca turn into satiny and smooth, an attractive mix,” she says. If you require a past-minute system correction in a sauce, McGee suggests tuber and root starches, specially tapioca and potato, can aid because of their efficiency, velocity and neutral flavor.


Shasteen claims this is probably the most palatable starch given that it’s a acquainted, while relatively neutral, flavor. Potato starch is the most potent of the bunch, with extensive starch molecules that rapidly tangle with each individual other and thicken a liquid. Individuals more time molecules, McGee claims, can lend the impact of stringiness. Potato starch does, while, make a quite clear physical appearance. Gelation temp: 136 to 150 levels Fahrenheit.

Utilizes: In “CookWise,” Shirley Corriher states the “firm, very clear gel” that potato starch would make can be a superior in good shape in pie. You can use it in sauces, in accordance to McGee, even though be informed that it will “give a apparent initial graininess.” Here’s wherever you want to maintain stirring for the reason that at some point, you will crack the starch granules and then the consistency will flip finer and thinner. Potato starch will enable preserve that consistency mainly because it doesn’t congeal as substantially when cooled, McGee states.

Usage tips

Just for the reason that some starches are standouts in specified locations does not necessarily mean you simply cannot substitute for one particular a further, specifically if you’re in a pantry bind (and if you fully grasp the attributes of the starches stated above!).

In accordance to Corriher, these are the equivalents to thicken 1 cup of liquid for a “medium sauce”:

  • 2 tablespoons wheat flour
  • 1 tablespoon furthermore 1 teaspoon cornstarch, arrowroot or tapioca starch
  • 2 1/4 teaspoons potato starch.

For a slender sauce, the wheat flour drops to 1 tablespoon and for thick, it will increase to 3 tablespoons, this means you’d reduce or enhance the other options appropriately.

For flexibility and accessibility, if you ended up likely to decide on one or two of the pure starches to retain on hand, Shasteen endorses cornstarch and potato starch. “Those are the ones I normally have,” she says. And, of training course, numerous house cooks already have all-purpose wheat flour.

No make a difference which starch you use, really do not incorporate it in its dry sort to a dish. “Starch has a nasty routine of clumping when it is put together with other substances, in particular liquid. The liquid envelops the starch, and if the starch is bonded to other starches, it can sort pockets that do not get integrated,” Erin Jeanne McDowell writes in “The Fearless Baker.” That is why it’s vital to combine the starch with a scaled-down sum of interesting liquid very first, usually referred to as a slurry. (Wheat flour can be combined with body fat, as described higher than.) Introducing the slurry slowly and stirring continuously also can help evenly distribute the starch. For baking applications, McDowell indicates whisking starch into sugar, which achieves a equivalent result of even distribution.

In addition to an unappetizing starchy taste, you can thicken a dish much too a lot. As Corriher points out, it can glance like very little is going on, even nevertheless the starches are thickening on a microscopic amount. You may determine to add a lot more of a slurry, until eventually out of the blue the mixture seizes up like glue. “The top secret of functioning with starch-thickened sauces is to convey them to a light boil initial,” she claims. “Then decide no matter if they are thick adequate and add far more starch in chilly h2o if needed.”

McGee raises a couple of other motives to go effortless on starches. One particular is they can uninteresting the flavors of a dish. Moreover, starches will go on to thicken and congeal as they interesting — good in something like pudding, considerably less so your gravy. In particular for dishes that incorporate flour, cornstarch and potato starch, anticipate that post-cooking thickening by leaving the sauce, soup or stew a small thinner than you want it for serving. McGee says you can also put a little quantity on a great dish to look at what the final regularity might be like.

Higher quantities of salt, sugar and acid can all impede the thickening electric power of starch, which is why it is specifically significant to abide by a recipe with regard to component quantities, timing and procedure (how substantially and when to stir).

Barbara J. Miriam

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