Baking Powder Vs. Cornstarch

Baking powder and cornstarch are two common ingredients found in many kitchen pantries. While they may appear similar at first glance - both being white powders - they serve very different purposes in cooking and baking.

Baking Powder Vs. Cornstarch

Understanding the distinct properties and uses of baking powder versus cornstarch is key to being an accomplished home cook. Read on as we explore when to use each one, how they differ, and if they can be used interchangeably.

What is Baking Powder?

Baking powder is a leavening agent used in baked goods like cakes, muffins, scones, and breads. It is utilized to help batters rise and achieve a light, airy texture.

Baking powder works via a chemical reaction. It contains both a base (baking soda) and an acid (such as a cream of tartar or sodium aluminum sulfate). When baking powder is combined with liquid ingredients, the acid and base interact, producing carbon dioxide bubbles.

These bubbles get trapped as the dough or batter bakes, causing it to inflate - resulting in a fluffier, less dense end product.

Key Takeaway: Baking powder causes batters to rise, making baked goods light and airy via a chemical reaction producing gas bubbles.

How Does Baking Powder Work?

Baking powder contains both a base (usually baking soda) and an acid (such as cream of tartar). When the base and acid combine in the presence of moisture, an acid-base reaction occurs.

This reaction generates carbon dioxide gas, which gets trapped in the baking batter or dough. As the gas expands during heating, it causes the batter to puff up, resulting in increased volume and a lighter texture.

Some key points about how baking powder works:

  • Baking powder is activated by liquid and heat. Interaction with liquid starts producing gas bubbles immediately. More bubbles are produced during baking, causing further rising.
  • Double acting baking powder (the most common type) reacts in two phases - creating an initial rise, then more rise from oven heat.
  • Too much baking powder can make baked goods taste bitter or metallic. Always measure precisely.
  • Old baking powder may not cause enough lift. Check expiration dates and do the “teaspoon test” to ensure potency.
  • Overmixing after adding baking powder deflates the dough - gently mix just until combined.

The power of that little tablespoon of baking powder is clear - batters inflate, bake goods rise, all thanks to chemical reactions producing gases and bubbles.

How is Baking Powder Used in Cooking and Baking?

Baking powder is a staple ingredient in a baker’s pantry. Here are some of the most common uses for baking powder:

Cakes, Cupcakes and Muffins
From fluffy vanilla cake to banana muffins, baking powder helps cakes and muffins rise and achieve a light crumb. Use the amount specified in recipes - about 1 tsp per cup of flour.

Pancakes and Waffles
Who doesn’t love fluffy pancakes? Baking powder is essential for lift in pancakes and waffles. It reacts with the liquid ingredients to generate a rise.

Biscuits and Scones
Baking powder gives biscuits and scones their characteristic soft, flaky texture. Follow recipe instructions precisely to avoid over-leavening these quick breads.

Baking powder helps fritters puff up when fried, resulting in a lighter interior compared to a dense, doughy middle.

Cookies While cookies don’t rely on rise, a small amount of baking powder can add airiness, soften texture, and improve browning.

As an Egg Substitute
For each egg replaced, use 1 tsp baking powder, 1 tbsp water, and 1 tbsp vinegar. The vinegar reacts with the baking powder to add lift.

Key Takeaway: From fluffy cakes to airy pancakes and soft biscuits, baking powder makes baked goods rise. Follow recipe instructions precisely.

What is Cornstarch?

Cornstarch is a white, powdery starch derived from the endosperm of corn kernels. It has a variety of uses in cooking and baking:

  • As a thickening agent for sauces, gravies, and fruit fillings
  • To make custard, pudding, and ice cream smoother
  • For dusting surfaces when rolling out dough
  • To absorb moisture in recipes
  • To make baked goods tender rather than tough
  • For breading foods to be deep-fried

Cornstarch has unique properties:

  • Tasteless, odorless and gluten-free
  • Provides sheen and translucence to sauces
  • Breaks down when boiled for too long
  • Works well in both sweet and savory applications

Key Takeaway: Cornstarch thickens, adds sheen, tenderizes baked goods and absorbs moisture. It's versatile for both cooking and baking.

Baking PowderCornstarch
Leavening agentThickening agent
Causes batters to riseThickens liquids
Used in baked goodsUsed in sauces, pie fillings
Chemical leavenerStarch extracted from corn
Makes things fluffyMakes things thick

How Does Cornstarch Work?

Cornstarch consists mostly of starch molecules extracted from corn. When cornstarch is heated and mixed with liquid, the starch molecules absorb water. This causes them to swell up and burst, releasing extra starch to thicken the liquid.

A few key points about how cornstarch thickens:

  • Cold liquids allow the cornstarch to disperse smoothly before thickening.
  • Bringing the mixture to a boil activates full thickening power.
  • Acidic ingredients like lemon juice or vinegar weaken cornstarch's thickening ability.
  • Overheating causes cornstarch to break down, thinning out the liquid again.
  • Unlike flour, cornstarch thickens without needing to cook the raw starch taste out.

The swelling and bursting of cornstarch molecules in liquid creates a smooth, thickened texture. Following the proper technique ensures you activate cornstarch's full thickening potential.

How is Cornstarch Used in Cooking and Baking?

From sauces to pie doughs, cornstarch has many versatile uses:

Thicken Sauces and Gravies - Whisking a cornstarch slurry into hot liquid creates silky sauces with a sheen. Start with a ratio of 1 tbsp cornstarch to 2 tbsp cold water.

Pie Fillings - Cornstarch thickens fruit pie fillings without obscuring their fresh flavor. It prevents watery fillings from leaking out.

Puddings and Custards - For super smooth and creamy puddings, a bit of cornstarch stabilizes the texture beautifully.

Frying - Dusting foods with cornstarch before frying creates a crispy coating. The starch absorbs surface moisture.

Glazes - Mixed into sugary glazes, cornstarch prevents drips and helps glazes cling to surfaces.

Tenderize Baked Goods - A sprinkling of cornstarch can help tenderize muffins, cookies, and quick breads.

Prevent Sticking - Dusting dough with cornstarch instead of flour prevents sticking when rolling out pie crusts.

Key Takeaway: From silky gravy to fruit fillings, custards, crispy frying and tender quick breads, cornstarch serves many roles in cooking and baking.

Can You Use Cornstarch Instead of Baking Powder?

While cornstarch and baking powder may appear similar to white powders, they cannot be used interchangeably.

Baking powder acts as a leavener. It causes batters to rise by producing carbon dioxide bubbles through an acid-base reaction.

Cornstarch is not capable of leavening in this manner. It does not contain the acid component needed to interact with baking soda and generate lift.

While baking powder includes some cornstarch as an inert stabilizing ingredient, the small quantity present is not sufficient to significantly thicken batters or replace the leavening power of baking powder.

Substituting cornstarch for baking powder will not cause the desired rise in baked goods. They perform completely different functions.

Can You Replace Cornstarch with Baking Powder?

Just as cornstarch cannot mimic baking powder’s leavening ability, baking powder lacks cornstarch’s thickening superpowers.

Baking powder should not be substituted for cornstarch as a thickener, as it does not contain enough starch to effectively thicken sauces, gravies, puddings, and pie fillings the way cornstarch does.

Exchanging equal amounts of baking powder for cornstarch will not produce properly thickened results.

In addition, the metallic taste of baking powder is not desirable in many recipes where cornstarch provides thickening with a more neutral flavor.

Bottom line - baking powder is not an effective replacement for cornstarch as a thickener.

Cornstarch vs. Baking Powder - A Summary

While baking powder and cornstarch appear similar, they have distinct culinary purposes:

  • Baking Powder - Leavening agent that makes batters rise via chemical reaction
  • Cornstarch - Thickening agent that absorbs moisture and increases viscosity

Substituting one for the other does not produce comparable results. Know when you need the lift of baking powder versus the thickening power of cornstarch.

When in doubt, consult recipes to determine whether baking powder or cornstarch is required for your desired finished texture. With an understanding of their different roles, you can avoid recipe failures.


Can I make baking powder with cornstarch?

Yes, you can make baking powder at home using cornstarch. Simply mix 1 tsp baking soda, 1 tsp cornstarch, and 2 tsp cream of tartar. Store in an airtight container.

What can be used in place of cornstarch for thickening?

Substitute arrowroot starch, potato starch, tapioca flour, or flour such as all-purpose or cake flour. Adjust amounts as needed.

What is the best substitute for baking powder?

For 1 tsp baking powder, you can use 1/4 tsp baking soda + 1/2 tsp cream of tartar. Also, substitute 1/4 tsp baking soda + 1/2 cup buttermilk or yogurt.

Can I leave out baking powder?

You can omit baking powder from recipes, but this will result in denser, flatter baked goods. Add an extra egg or use a substitute leavener like baking soda and cream of tartar instead.

Why do my baked goods not rise with baking powder?

Old/expired baking powder may be inactive and not produce enough lift. Too much baking powder can collapse the batter. Ensure your baking powder is fresh and measured precisely.


Baking powder and cornstarch serve unique purposes in the kitchen that cannot be interchanged. However, both ingredients have their place in recipes when used properly.

Understanding when you need the lifting power of baking powder versus the thickening abilities of cornstarch will help you achieve desired results and avoid baking failures.

Sarah Cortez
Sarah Cortez

My name is Sarah and I'm a baker who loves trying out new recipes and flavor combinations. I decided to challenge myself to use a new spice or ingredient powder in my baking each week for a year. Some successes were the cardamom sugar cookies, vivid turmeric cake, and beetroot chocolate cupcakes. Failures included the bitter neem brownies and overwhelmingly hot ghost pepper snickerdoodles. Through this experience I've discovered amazing additions to spice up desserts while learning how to balance strong flavors. Follow my journey as I push the boundaries of baking with unique powders!

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