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Starch Thickeners


starch thickeners   Notes:   These silky powders are used to thicken sauces, gravies, pie fillings, and puddings.   They're popular because they thicken without adding fat or much flavor.  


  • To avoid lumps, mix the starch with an equal amount of cold liquid until it forms a paste, then whisk it into the liquid you're trying to thicken.  Once the thickener is added, cook it briefly to remove the starchy flavor.  Don't overcook--liquids thickened with some starches will thin again if cooked too long or at too high a temperature.  

  • Cornstarch, arrowroot, and tapioca are the most popular starch thickeners.  They have different strengths and weaknesses, so it's a good idea to stock all three in your pantry.

  • Starch thickeners give food a transparent, glistening sheen, which looks nice in a pie filling, but a bit artificial in a gravy or sauce.  If you want high gloss, choose tapioca or arrowroot.  If you want low gloss, choose cornstarch.  

  • Cornstarch is the best choice for thickening dairy-based sauces.  Arrowroot becomes slimy when mixed with milk products.

  • Choose arrowroot if you're thickening an acidic liquid.  Cornstarch loses potency when mixed with acids.

  • Sauces made with cornstarch turn spongy when they're frozen.  If you plan to freeze a dish, use tapioca starch or arrowroot as a thickener.   

  • Starch thickeners don't add much flavor to a dish, although they can impart a starchy flavor if they're undercooked.  If you worried that your thickener will mask delicate flavors in your dish, choose arrowroot.  It's the most neutral tasting of the starch thickeners.  

  • Tapioca starch thickens quickly, and at a relatively low temperature.  It's a good choice if you want to correct a sauce just before serving it.  

Substitutes:   roux (Higher in fat, but best for gravies, stews, and gumbos.) OR instant flour (Use twice as much.  Flour turns sauces opaque, imparts a starchy flavor, thins out if cooked too long, and breaks down if frozen and thawed.) OR potato (Adding grated potato to soups or stews will thicken them.) OR nut flours (These have a more pronounced flavor.)


arrowroot starch = arrowroot powder = arrowroot = arrowroot flour    This starch thickener has several advantages over cornstarch.  It has a more neutral flavor, so it's a good thickener for delicately flavored sauces.  It also works at a lower temperature, and tolerates acidic ingredients and prolonged cooking better.  And while sauces thickened with cornstarch turn into a spongy mess if they're frozen, those made with arrowroot can be frozen and thawed with impunity.   The downside is that arrowroot is pricier than cornstarch, and it's not a good thickener for dairy-based sauces, since it turns them slimy. 
Arrowroot also imparts a shiny gloss to foods, and while it can make a dessert sauce glow spectacularly, it can make a meat sauce look eerie and fake.  To thicken with arrowroot, mix it with an equal amount of cold water, then whisk the slurry into a hot liquid for about 30 seconds.   Look for it in Asian markets and health food stores.   Equivalents:  One tablespoon thickens one cup of liquid.  Substitutes:   tapioca starch (very similar) OR Instant ClearJelŽ  OR cornstarch (Cornstarch doesn't impart as glossy a finish and can leave a starchy taste if undercooked.) OR kudzu powder OR potato starch OR rice starch OR flour (Flour makes an opaque sauce, imparts a floury taste, and can easily turn lumpy.  Use twice as much flour as arrowroot.)

 ClearJelŽ = ClearJelŽ starch = Clear-jel   Notes:    This modified cornstarch is the secret ingredient that many commercial bakers use in their fruit pie fillings.  Unlike ordinary cornstarch, ClearJelŽ works well with acidic ingredients, tolerates high temperatures, and doesn't cause pie fillings to "weep" during storage.  ClearJelŽ is an especially good choice if you're canning homemade pie fillings, since it doesn't begin thickening until the liquid begins to cool.  This allows the heat the be more evenly distributed within the jar during processing.  This is such an important safety advantage that ClearJelŽ is the only thickener the USDA recommends for home canning.  You can also use ClearJelŽ to thicken sauces, stews, and the like, though it's a rather expensive all-purpose thickener.   One downside is that products thickened with ClearJelŽ tend to break down if they're frozen and thawed.  If you plan to freeze what you're making, use Instant ClearJelŽ, arrowroot, or tapioca starch.   ClearJelŽ is available either as pearls or powder from mail-order suppliers, but it's not yet available in grocery stores.    Substitutes:   Instant ClearJelŽ (Don't use this if you're canning a pie filling.) OR tapioca starch OR arrowroot starch OR cornstarch 


cornstarch = corn starch = cornflour = crčme de mais = maize cornflour    Equivalents:  One tablespoon (1/4 ounce) thickens one cup of liquid.  Notes:   This silky powder is used to thicken sauces, gravies, and puddings.  Like other starch thickeners, cornstarch should be mixed into a slurry with an equal amount of cold water before it's added to the hot liquid you're trying to thicken.  You then need to simmer the liquid, stirring constantly, for a minute or so until it thickens.   Cornstarch doesn't stand up to freezing or prolonged cooking, and it doesn't thicken well when mixed with acidic liquids.  Cornstarch is called cornflour or maize cornflour in Britain, Australia, and New Zealand.  Don't confuse cornstarch with the finely ground cornmeal that Americans call corn flour.  Substitutes:  arrowroot (This tolerates freezing and prolonged cooking better, and imparts a glossier finish.) OR ClearJelŽ (especially for pie fillings) OR tapioca starch (dissolves more easily) OR potato starch (This is permitted during Passover.) OR kuzu OR flour OR water chestnut starch (especially in Asian cuisines) OR unsweetened almond powder (imparts a nutty taste, especially good in Chinese sweet-and-sour dishes) 

crčme de mais

Instant ClearjelŽ   Notes:    This is a modified cornstarch that professional bakers sometimes use to thicken pie fillings.  It has several advantages over ordinary cornstarch.   Instant ClearJelŽ thickens without cooking, works well with acidic ingredients, tolerates high temperatures, is freezer-stable, and doesn't cause pie fillings to "weep" during storage.   Don't use Instant ClearJelŽ for canning--it tends to break down.  Substitutes:  ClearJelŽ (not freezer-stable) OR tapioca starch OR arrowroot starch OR cornstarch 


instant tapioca = quick-cooking tapioca = quick tapioca = granulated tapioca = tapioca granules = instant pearl tapioca    Notes:   These small, starchy granules are used to make tapioca pudding and to thicken pie fillings.  The grains don't dissolve completely when cooked, so puddings and pies thickened with them end up studded with tiny gelatinous balls.  If you don't mind the balls, you can also use instant tapioca to thicken soups, gravies, and stews.  If the balls are a problem, just pulverize the instant tapioca in a coffee grinder or blender, or buy tapioca starch, which is already finely ground.  Instant tapioca tolerates prolonged cooking and freezing, and gives the fillings an attractive glossy sheen.   To use it in a pie filling, mix it with the other ingredients, then let it sit for at least five minutes so that the tapioca can absorb some of the liquid.  Don't confuse instant tapioca with regular tapioca, which has larger beads, or with the even larger tapioca pearls sold in Asian markets.  MinuteŽ tapioca is a well-known brand.  Substitutes:    regular tapioca (Use twice as much.  Puddings made with this will have larger gelatinous balls in it.) OR tapioca starch (This is also used to thicken pie fillings.) OR tapioca pearls (Pulverize these first with a blender, coffee grinder, or food processor) OR cornstarch (Use half as much.  Cornstarch breaks down if it's mixed with acidic ingredients, cooked for a long time, or frozen and thawed.) OR arrowroot (more expensive) OR flour (Use a little more.)


glutinous rice flour


kudzu powder = kuzu powder   Pronunciation:   KOOD-zoo  Equivalents:   Use 3 tablespoons of kudzu powder to thicken 2 cups of liquid.  Notes:   This thickener is made from the tuber of the kudzu, the obnoxious vine that was imported from Japan a number of years ago and is now growing out of control all over the South.  It's very expensive, and the main reason to buy it is for its reputed medicinal benefits.  It comes in small chunks.  To thicken a liquid, crush the chunks into a powder, mix them with an equal amount of cold water, then stir the mixture into the hot liquid and simmer for a few minutes until the sauce is thickened.  Look for kudzu in health food stores.   Substitutes: arrowroot powder OR cornstarch

lotus root flour  Notes:  This is gluten-free.

maize cornflour


naw may fun

potato flour

potato starch = potato flour = potato starch flour = katakuriko   Notes:   This gluten-free starch  is used to thicken soups and gravies.  Its main advantage over other starch thickeners is that it's a permitted ingredient for Passover, unlike cornstarch and other grain-based foods. Liquids thickened with potato starch should never be boiled.  Supermarkets often stock it among the Kosher products.   Substitutes:  cornstarch (This is very similar, but not permitted for Passover.) OR arrowroot OR tapioca starch OR ground Passover matzo (This is also permitted for Passover.)

regular tapioca = small pearl tapioca  Notes:   These are small beads of tapioca that are used to make tapioca pudding.  The beads don't dissolve completely, so they end up as small, squishy, gelatinous balls that are suspended in the pudding.  Don't confuse this with instant tapioca, which is granulated and often used to thicken fruit pie fillings, or with pearl tapioca, which has much larger balls.  Substitutes:  instant tapioca (Tapioca pudding made with this will end have smaller gelatinous balls.  Use half as much.)


sago starch = sago = pearl sage    Pronunciation:   SAY-go   Notes:   This flour is made from the inner pulp of the sago palm.  It's often used to make pudding, but it can also serve as an all-purpose thickener.  Look for it in Asian markets.   Substitutes:   tapioca pearls


sahlab   Notes:  This is made from orchid tubers and has a pleasant, flowery smell.  Look for it in Middle Eastern markets.    Substitutes:  cornstarch (Substitute measure for measure.)

sorghum starch  Substitutes: cornstarch

soy starch


sweet potato starch  Notes:  Asian cooks like to dredge pork in this before frying it.  


sweet rice flour = mochiko = glutinous rice flour = glutinous rice powder = sweet glutinous rice flour = mochi flour = naw may fun   Notes:  This thickener has the virtue of remaining stable when frozen.  It's often used to make Asian desserts. Don't confuse sweet rice flour with ordinary rice flour.  Look for it in Asian markets.   Substitutes:  tapioca starch (This also doesn't separate when frozen)  

tapioca flour

tapioca pearls = pearl tapioca = large pearl tapioca = fish eye tapioca = tapioca balls = sa khu met lek   Notes:    These round pellets are made from cassava roots.  Asians use them to make puddings and a beverage called bubble tea.  You can also use them to make tapioca pudding, though it's faster and easier to use instant or regular tapioca.  The pearls are normally soaked for at least a few hours before they're added to a recipe.   Substitutes:  sago starch OR instant tapioca OR tapioca starch


tapioca starch = tapioca flour = cassava flour = yucca starch = almidon de yuca   Notes: Tapioca is a good choice for thickening pie fillings, since it thickens at a lower temperature than cornstarch, remains stable when frozen, and imparts a glossy sheen.  Many pie recipes call for instant tapioca instead of tapioca starch, but instant tapioca doesn't dissolve completely and leaves small gelatinous blobs suspended in the liquid.  This isn't a problem in a two-crust pies, but the blobs are more noticeable in single-crust pies.  Tapioca starch is finely ground so that it dissolves completely, eliminating the gelatinous blob problem.  The starch is also sometimes used to thicken soups, stews, and sauces, but the glossy finish looks a bit unnatural in these kinds of dishes.  It works quickly, though, so it's a good choice if you want to correct a sauce just before serving it.  Some recipes for baked goods also call for tapioca flour because it imparts a chewier texture.  Substitutes:  instant tapioca (Also good for thickening pie fillings.  If you like, pulverize the beads in a blender before using.) OR Instant ClearJelŽ OR sweet rice flour (also remains stable when frozen) OR cornstarch (doesn't dissolve as easily, separates if frozen) OR arrowroot (separates if frozen) OR potato starch (separates if frozen) OR rice starch (separates if frozen) OR instant flour (use twice as much; sauce will be opaque, not clear; separates if frozen)

water chestnut flour = water chestnut powder = water chestnut starch   Notes:    Asian cooks often dredge foods in this before frying them, because it gives fried foods a crisp, nutty coating.  It can also be used as a thickener.  Look for it in Asian markets and health food stores.  Don't confuse this with chestnut flour. Substitutes:   cornstarch 

water chestnut powder



Copyright Š 1996-2005  Lori Alden