If you find yourself in need of a cornstarch substitute, whether due to a corn allergy, using up your stash to make non-Newtonian fluid for a science project, or simply forgetting to restock, do not fret. Cornstarch is a workhorse of a pantry staple—it’s a stabilizer for whips and emulsions; a thickener for stir-fries, soups, jams, and jellies; a crisp-ifying miracle dredge for fried, baked, and sauteed foods—and it’s very worth keeping a tub of it around. But these six swaps can get those jobs done just as well. Which one you use depends on the recipe, your needs, and what pantry staples you have on hand.
Potato starch is the cornstarch substitute favorite of associate food editor Kendra Vaculin. A light, white powder extracted from crushed potatoes, it’s an almost flawless one-to-one swap for cornstarch in all applications. You can use it to make a thickening slurry for smooth, creamy Homemade Queso, or toss it with tofu to give it a light, airy, crispy shell, like in this Saucy Tofu With Garam Masala. Kendra, who’s allergic to corn, always keeps a bag of her go-to brand, Bob’s Red Mill, in her kitchen. “It’s even sweet enough to use in desserts like marshmallow recipes,” says Kendra.
When it comes to crispy, craggy, shatteringly crunchy dredges for fried proteins, rice flour is a good substitute for cornstarch, with one exception: It’s a little pricier. If you need to use a large amount, you may increase the cost of your cooking project considerably. Still, you can swap in an equal amount of rice flour in place of cornstarch in recipes like Chicken Karaage or Harissa Honey Popcorn Chicken, and you’ll find the results just as satisfyingly crunchy. Be careful using rice flour as a thickening agent, however. Some brands may result in a grittier—or gummier—texture. For the best results, seek out fine-milled white rice flour.
If you’ve ever made a roux, you know how well good ol’ all-purpose flour thickens sauces, gravies, and stews. It’s not a perfect substitute for cornstarch: A sauce thickened with cornstarch will be more translucent, while one thickened with all-purpose flour will be opaque and have a thicker texture. It also won’t provide the same thin, shatteringly crisp crust cornstarch gives to some fried foods, but it can work for either situation in a pinch. Some tips: Use 2 tablespoons of flour for every tablespoon of cornstarch. If making a pan sauce, cook the flour in a bit of fat first—you can make this as toasty and caramelized as you want—or boil the sauce for a few minutes to get rid of the “raw flour” taste and texture.
Extracted from the root of cassava, tapioca flour (or tapioca starch) is one of the best cornstarch substitutes for puddings and sweet sauces. Don’t confuse this with cassava flour, which is more fibrous and made using the whole root. Tapioca flour is a stellar thickening agent, but be careful about overdoing it. It doesn’t quite mimic the texture of cornstarch exactly and can veer into gummy territory if you use too much (if you enjoy bubble tea and boba, you’re familiar with tapioca’s potential chew factor). Use twice the amount of tapioca flour to replace the cornstarch in your recipe, and don’t overheat or boil for an excessive amount of time. Use it in jammy fruit pie filling or desserts like this Plum-Cardamom Crumble With Pistachios or an eggy, jiggly Custard Tart With Cream and Fresh Fruit.
Arrowroot powder (also called arrowroot starch or arrowroot flour) may be extracted from the roots of several tropical plants, including cassava. Commonly used to add airiness to gluten-free and vegan desserts, it can also work as a thickening agent, just like cornstarch—but be wary that it’s a touch more finicky. Arrowroot doesn’t behave well when heated and tends to thin out as soon as it’s cooked, so use it in recipes where you don’t need to worry about direct heat or a long simmer—desserts are a great place for this. Start by dissolving it in cold water (a one-to-one ratio of arrowroot powder to cornstarch should do the trick) before slowly adding to room-temperature sauces.
Realistically speaking, if you don’t have cornstarch in your pantry, you’re most likely not stocked up on xanthan gum. Often derived from cornstarch through a fermentation process (if you’ve got a corn allergy, beware!), it’s a common thickening agent and is often used in gluten-free baking recipes to mimic the stretchiness of wheat flour. As a substitute for cornstarch, you need just a little bit for sauces and gravies. It’s got major thickening power—think half a teaspoon or less for an entire pan of gravy. Start very slow, and add more as necessary.
Thickening something sweet? May we suggest instant pudding?