Cooking and baking often require thickening agents to achieve the perfect texture in sauces, gravies, custards and more. Two of the most popular options are corn starch and arrowroot powder.
What is Corn Starch?
Corn starch is a fine, powdery flour made from the starchy part of corn called the endosperm. To make it, the corn kernel is first soaked to soften the kernel. Then, the outer bran and germ are removed, leaving behind the endosperm. The endosperm is then dried and ground into a fine powder.
Some key attributes of corn starch:
- Neutral in taste
- Colorless and opaque
- Produces a glossy texture
- Provides thickness at high temperatures
- Poor freezer stability
- Risk of GMOs
Corn starch is commonly used as a:
- Thickening agent for sauces, gravies, custards
- Binder and moisture-retainer in baked goods
- Coating for fried foods to enhance crispiness
- Dusting powder to prevent caking
Key Takeaway: Corn starch is made from corn and provides thickness and moisture-retention in cooking and baking.
What is Arrowroot Powder?
Arrowroot powder is a starch extracted from the underground rhizomes or tubers of the Maranta arundinacea plant. The tubers are first washed, peeled and then dried in the sun or in a heated room. After drying, the dried mass is ground into a fine, white powder.
Some key attributes of arrowroot powder:
- Neutral in taste
- Colorless and clear finish
- Provides a glossy texture
- Poor stability at high temperatures
- Excellent freezer stability
- Naturally non-GMO
Arrowroot powder is commonly used as a:
- Thickener for sauces, gravies, fruit fillings
- Replacement for corn starch in baking
- Coating for fried foods to enhance crispness
- Binding agent in gluten-free baking
- Dry shampoo to absorb oil
Key Takeaway: Arrowroot is extracted from an edible plant and can provide thickness and structure in cooking and baking.
Corn Starch vs. Arrowroot: Key Differences
Now that you know the basics, let's discuss the main differences between corn starch and arrowroot powder:
Both corn starch and arrowroot create a clear, glossy texture in liquids. However, corn starch leads to a slightly opaque appearance, while arrowroot maintains a fully clear and translucent look.
For this reason, arrowroot is better for fruit fillings, glazes and clear desserts where maintaining transparency is preferable.
Corn starch has a very subtle starchy or "corny" flavor, especially if overcooked. Arrowroot is tasteless and won't affect or dilute the flavor of a dish.
If you're making a delicate sauce or dessert, arrowroot is the better choice as it won't add any flavor.
Arrowroot holds up well to acidic ingredients like citrus juice or vinegar. The molecules remain stable, providing thickening power.
Corn starch breaks down faster in acidic environments, losing its thickening capabilities.
For acidic recipes like vinaigrettes, hot sauce, or fruit pie fillings, arrowroot is the clear winner.
Corn starch is better at high temperatures above 280°F or so. It provides thickness even with prolonged cooking times.
Arrowroot starts to break down at higher heats, so it's best to add it at the end of cooking.
For dishes cooked on the stovetop or baked at high oven temperatures, corn starch is the way to go.
Arrowroot maintains its structure after freezing, so frozen foods thickened with it will retain their texture.
Corn starch tends to break down when frozen, resulting in a thin, watery texture after thawing.
To maintain thickness in frozen foods like ice cream, arrowroot is the better choice.
Texture With Dairy
Corn starch works well in dairy-based foods, providing thickness and stability in dishes like cheese sauce, pudding and cream pie fillings.
Arrowroot turns slimy when combined with dairy. The one exception is ice cream, where arrowroot helps minimize ice crystal formation.
For a smooth, creamy texture in dairy-based desserts, corn starch is preferred.
Both corn starch and arrowroot powder are naturally gluten-free. They're popular replacements for regular wheat-based flour in gluten-free cooking and baking.
However, arrowroot is considered more "pure" than corn starch, as corn is a high-risk food for gluten cross-contamination.
For preparing strictly gluten-free dishes, arrowroot may be the safer bet. Always check the label to confirm the product is certified gluten-free.
Arrowroot is derived from a non-GMO plant and products are readily available certified non-GMO.
Corn starch runs a risk of GMOs as the vast majority of corn grown in the U.S. is genetically modified. Organic, non-GMO corn starch exists but likelihood of cross-contamination is still a concern.
For GMO-free cooking, arrowroot is the best choice.
Corn starch is significantly less expensive than arrowroot powder. A 16 oz box of corn starch costs around $2-3 while the same amount of arrowroot costs $6-8.
If budget is a main concern, corn starch provides more value. But the benefits of arrowroot may be worth the small price difference.
Arrowroot has about twice the thickening power of corn starch. Generally replace 1 tablespoon of corn starch with 2 teaspoons of arrowroot.
Less arrowroot is required in recipes, which can offset its higher price.
How to Substitute Arrowroot and Corn Starch
Arrowroot and corn starch can often be used interchangeably in recipes by following this simple substitution ratio:
- 1 tablespoon corn starch = 2 teaspoons arrowroot
However, because their properties vary, switching one for another isn't always so straightforward.
Here are some guidelines for substituting arrowroot and corn starch:
- In acidic recipes, substitute arrowroot for corn starch at a 1:1 ratio. The acidity won't affect it.
- In dairy-based recipes, use corn starch in place of arrowroot at a 1:1 ratio to avoid sliminess.
- For freezing, use arrowroot in place of corn starch at a 2:3 ratio. It holds up better.
- For high heat, use corn starch instead of arrowroot at a 1:1 ratio. It withstands heat better.
- For thickening power, use less arrowroot than cornstarch. Start with half the amount and adjust as needed.
- For gluten-free recipes, arrowroot can replace cornstarch cup-for-cup.
- For clear results, use arrowroot in place of corn starch at a 1:1 ratio.
The optimal substitution ratio depends on the recipe, so some trial and error may be needed. When in doubt, start with less and add more as required.
Key Takeaway: A general substitution ratio is 1 tablespoon corn starch = 2 teaspoons arrowroot powder. But the ratio may need adjusting based on acidity, heat, dairy and other factors.
When to Use Corn Starch vs. Arrowroot
Here are some basic guidelines on when to use each thickener:
Use Corn Starch For:
- High heat recipes above 280°F
- Extended cooking times
- Thickening dairy-based foods
- Deep frying coatings and batters
- Sauces for meats
- Moisture and binding in baked goods
Use Arrowroot For:
- Delicate flavor profiles
- Acidic ingredients like citrus, vinegar, wine
- Fruit fillings, jams, jellies
- Clear glazes and sauces
- Freezer stable foods
- Smooth, creamy texture
Keep in mind that in many recipes their use is interchangeable. Play around with each to see which you prefer.
Key Takeaway: Corn starch for high heat, extended cooking, dairy and baking; Arrowroot for delicate flavors, acidic recipes and freezer stability.
How to Cook and Bake with Corn Starch and Arrowroot
Here are some tips for using corn starch and arrowroot powder successfully:
- To avoid clumping, first combine with a cold liquid like water or milk to make a slurry before adding to the hot dish.
- Only add at the end of cooking when thickening sauces and gravies, as extended cooking can break down their structure.
- For baked goods, you can incorporate into the dry ingredients before mixing the wet ingredients to evenly disperse.
- Start with less thickener and add more as needed. Too much and your dish may become gummy.
- Whisk vigorously when adding to prevent any lumps from forming.
- Check seasoning after thickening and adjust salt, spices as needed. Starch dilutes flavor.
- Refrigerate leftover thickened sauces - they will continue thickening as they cool.
- Make sure arrowroot never reaches a boil when added to liquids.
- Store both in an airtight container in a cool, dry place.
With a few simple tricks, both corn starch and arrowroot can help transform the texture of your cooking and baking recipes.
Is corn starch or arrowroot better for you?
Both are relatively neutral in terms of nutrition. Arrowroot contains a bit more fiber and nutrients like potassium and iron. However, the amounts are minimal. Most people would consider arrowroot marginally "better" as it's non-GMO and handles acidic ingredients better. But both are fine options.
Does arrowroot taste like cornstarch?
Arrowroot and cornstarch are nearly indistinguishable in terms of taste. Both have very subtle flavor profiles. Cornstarch has a hint of "starchy" flavor, while arrowroot has no taste at all. In most recipes, they can be used interchangeably without affecting flavor.
Can you use arrowroot instead of cornstarch for frying?
Yes, arrowroot can substitute cornstarch as a dredging flour when deep frying foods. It will provide a light, crispy coating around foods. The main difference is that arrowroot turns clear when cooked, while cornstarch browns slightly. For frying, they are fairly interchangeable.
Can I use corn starch instead of arrowroot for gravy?
You can substitute corn starch for arrowroot in gravy recipes. The main consideration is that arrowroot tolerates acidity better. So for gravies with wine, vinegar or citrus juice, arrowroot would be the better choice. But in most basic gravy recipes, corn starch can replace arrowroot 1:1.
Is arrowroot a better thickener than flour?
Arrowroot is considered a better thickener than all-purpose flour for a few reasons. First, it produces a glossier, more translucent final product versus flour which clouds liquids. Second, it doesn't dilute or alter flavors as much as flour. And third, arrowroot can withstand freezing and acidic environments that flour cannot. Overall, arrowroot does produce superior thickening results.
The Bottom Line
Arrowroot powder and corn starch serve as excellent thickeners in cooking and baking. While they share some similarities, their differences make each better suited for particular recipes and methods.
Corn starch works well for high heat cooking, neutralizing dairy, frying and baking where its thickening power remains stable.
Arrowroot powder brings out clearer, shinier results even in acidic liquids, cold preparations and freezer recipes, providing thickness without impacting flavors.