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Cornstarch Vs Baking Powder – What’s The Difference?

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For times when your recipe calls for cornstarch and you don’t have any, you may be tempted to use similar ingredients in its place such as baking powder. 

While it may seem like a doable thing, it may not work since different ingredients have different properties and uses.

So, what are the differences between cornstarch and baking powder? The main difference between the two is that cornstarch is used as a thickening agent whereas baking powder is used as a leavening agent. The former thickens mixtures while the latter promotes rising.

Read on to find out more about the differences between cornstarch and baking powder, how they are used, whether they are interchangeable, and much more!

What Is Cornstarch?

Cornstarch is a tasteless and odorless starch powder extracted from the endosperm of corn. It is used as a thickening agent for soups, gravies, sauces, and glazes and its main purpose is to absorb moisture.

Developed in 1844 in New Jersey, this powdery, white substance is gluten-free since it is derived from corn and is an essential ingredient in cuisines all around the world.

While all grains contain starches in different degrees, the starches extracted from corn are relatively easy to extract and purify. This makes cornstarch an inexpensive ingredient used for cooking as well as baking.

The primary use for cornstarch, like other culinary starches, is as a thickener and stabilizer for liquids.

When heated and exposed to moisture, the molecules in the cornstarch start to expand, unwind, and bond together in networks.

When enough bonds are formed, it begins to absorb moisture, similar to how a sponge works, and thickens the liquid it is added to.

How Is Cornstarch Used?

Prized for its thickening properties, cornstarch comprises long chains of starch molecules that start to unravel and swell when heated. This process is called gelatinization and is what causes the thickening to occur.

In addition to being used as a thickening agent, cornstarch is also useful as an anti-caking agent. A common use would be to coat shredded cheese or powdered sugar with a thin dusting of cornstarch to prevent it from clumping.

It also helps absorb excess moisture formed due to condensation and prevents a slimy texture from developing. 

Other uses of cornstarch include as a marinade for meat or fish for stir fry, as a supplement for flour in shortbread, and for making food extra crispy.

How To Cook With Cornstarch

The process of using cornstarch is the same whether you are using it to thicken gravies, soups, sauces, or any other liquid.

When cooking with cornstarch, make sure to never add it straight into a hot liquid as it may cause it to form lumps.

Instead, mix it either in room temperature or slightly cool water (or any other liquid) to form a slurry. Mix the slurry into the liquid you wish to thicken and gently raise the temperature.

This will ensure even distribution of the cornstarch molecules before they begin to swell and gelatinize. The thickening effect begins at 150°F and peaks at around 180°F. 

When the sauce has thickened to your desired consistency, stir it as little as possible, and do not let it come to a boil as it will cause the thickening effect to break down.

What Is Baking Powder?

Baking powder is a non-toxic powder used as a leavening agent for baking purposes.

It has a long shelf life, is inexpensive, and includes three basic ingredients in unique proportions: a base (baking soda aka. sodium bicarbonate), an acid (cream of tartar), and a buffering agent (cornstarch).

When the base and acid are mixed with water, a chemical reaction takes place that releases carbon dioxide, which helps increase foods in both size and volume.

The presence of cornstarch prevents the base and the acid from reacting with each other prematurely by absorbing any moisture that they might be exposed to.

How Is Baking Powder Used?

Most commonly used as a leavening agent in baked goods, baking powder is a useful ingredient in cooking as well. 

A common ingredient for making pancakes and waffles light and fluffy, baking powder is also used in recipes such as American-style dumplings, Middle Eastern falafels, and other fritter-like fried foods.

Baking powder can be single-acting or double-acting, with most commercial varieties being the latter since they start releasing some of the carbon dioxide as soon as some sort of moisture is introduced to it.

The rest of the gas is released by the heat of the oven or griddle.

Single-acting baking powder, on the other hand, is used exclusively by professional pastry chefs and skips the first rise of double-acting baking powder, reacting only to high temperatures.

How To Cook With Baking Powder

The best way to cook with baking powder is to follow the recipe you are referring to and use the amount that it calls for.

Baking powder is used in recipes that do not include acidic ingredients. For instance, in a recipe that calls for baking powder, eggs, milk, and flour, the baking powder acts as a rising agent when it reacts with the liquids.

A good rule of thumb is to use 1 teaspoon of baking powder for 1 cup of flour, but you can surely experiment.

Are Cornstarch and Baking Powder Interchangeable?

They’re both powdery, white substances used in cooking that look and feel almost similar. Does that mean they are interchangeable? Absolutely not.

The biggest difference between the two is that cornstarch is a thickening agent used in a variety of recipes from gravies, sauces, pies, and even ice cream, whereas baking powder is considered a leavening agent.

They serve entirely different purposes when added to other ingredients and are not interchangeable.

While they are a great choice for their specific purpose, they’d be terrible choices if swapped. Cornstarch cannot be used as a leavening agent and baking powder cannot be used as a thickening agent.

Since baking powder consists of cornstarch, you might assume that it can be used as a replacement for it. Unfortunately, that is not the case.

The amount of cornstarch present in baking powder isn’t enough to cause the desired thickening effect as actual cornstarch. Also, adding baking powder in large quantities to your recipe will give your food a bitter, sour, and salty taste.

While you cannot replace baking powder with cornstarch, you most certainly can make the former using the latter.

To make around 4 tsp of homemade baking powder, you will need:

  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp cornstarch
  • 2 tsp cream of tartar

What Can You Use As A Substitute For Cornstarch?

If you are out of cornstarch and need it for your recipe, you can use a substitute in its place depending on the purpose that cornstarch serves in your recipe.

In most cases, cornstarch is used as a thickening agent in baking as well as cooking and can be replaced with potato starch, rice flour, arrowroot flour, wheat flour, or any other type of similar starch.

Here are some of the best substitutes for cornstarch:

Potato Starch

Although the thickening properties of potato starch do not last too long after baking, it can be a great choice for foods that you plan on eating immediately.

Made by crushing potatoes to release their starch content which is then dried into a powder, potato starch has a delicate flavor making it ideal for sauces.

When substituting it for cornstarch, use 1 tbsp of potato starch for 1 tbsp of cornstarch. Just be careful when you whisk it as it tends to clump up more than cornstarch.

Rice Flour

Made from finely ground rice, rice flour is a popular ingredient in Asian cuisines for desserts, soups, and rice noodles.

Like cornstarch, it is naturally gluten-free and can act as a thickening agent for most recipes making it a great substitute for cornstarch.

Since it is colorless when mixed in water, it is especially useful for clear liquids. However, when using it in place of cornstarch, it is recommended to use twice as much to get the same results.

Arrowroot Flour

Arrowroot is a starchy flour that comes from the roots of a tropical plant of the Maranta genus. To make arrowroot, the roots of the plant are dried and then ground into a fine powder.

This powder can be used as a thickener in cooking and is often used in place of cornstarch as not only is it gluten-free but also contains more fiber.

When mixed with water, it forms a clear gel making it ideal for clear liquids. To get similar results as cornstarch, it is recommended to use twice as much arrowroot powder.

Wheat Flour

Made by grinding wheat into a fine powder, wheat flour is another great substitute for cornstarch that not only contains starch but also protein and fiber.

Although to get the same result as cornstarch when thickening your liquids, you will need to use more of it. Therefore, it is recommended to use twice as much. For 1 tbsp of cornstarch, use 2 tbsp of wheat flour.

However, keep in mind that using flour won’t give whatever you are thickening that glossy shine that cornstarch would. Also, make sure to cook it a few minutes longer to get rid of the flour’s raw flavor.

Tapioca Flour

Tapioca flour is made from the cassava root and is great for thickening soups, sauces, and gravies, and for making gluten-free baked goods.

More popular in its pearl form when used to make boba and puddings, tapioca flour may not be the best substitute for cornstarch for breading and baking, but it is a great option that works perfectly as a thickening agent.

To replace cornstarch with tapioca flour, simply double the amount used in the recipe since it doesn’t absorb moisture to the same extent as cornstarch.

What Can You Use As A Substitute For Baking Powder?

Baking powder is a leavening agent used in baking. If you are short of baking powder in your pantry and need it for your recipe, you can substitute it with another leavening agent that can produce the same effect.

You can even make your own baking powder at home using three common ingredients: baking soda, cornstarch, and cream of tartar.

While there are several great options to use in place of baking powder, when selecting the best one, it is important to keep in mind the flavor profile of your finished baked good.

You may also need to adjust the other ingredients in your recipe based on what you use as a substitute.

Baking powder is often confused with baking soda, with many people thinking they are the same thing. The latter consists only of sodium bicarbonate and doesn’t include an acid component. 

Therefore, to be used in place of baking powder as a leavening agent, baking soda must be combined with an acid to have the same effect.

Here are some of the best substitutes for baking powder:

Buttermilk

Buttermilk is a fermented dairy product with a flavor profile similar to plain yogurt. Due to its acidic nature, combining buttermilk with baking soda will produce the same leavening effect as baking powder.

To substitute 1 tsp of baking powder, use ½ a cup of buttermilk mixed with ¼ tsp of baking soda.

Since this would increase the liquid content in your recipe, make sure you decrease the amount of the other liquids you add to your recipe to maintain the desired texture and consistency.

Plain Yogurt

Similar to buttermilk, yogurt is also made by fermenting milk. The fermentation process lowers the pH and increases the acidity of yogurt, making it a perfect substitute for baking powder when mixed with baking soda.

Plain yogurt works best compared to other yogurt varieties as it provides the required acidity for leavening without adding any additional flavor to your recipe.

To substitute 1 tsp of baking powder, use ½ cup of plain yogurt mixed with ¼ tsp of baking soda. Make sure to reduce the amount of liquid in the recipe based on how much plain yogurt you add to it.

Vinegar

Despite its strong flavor, vinegar is a common ingredient in baking and, when paired with baking soda, it makes a great leavening agent in cakes and cookies.

Apple cider vinegar may alter the color and taste of your dish, which is why it is best to use white vinegar as it has a more neutral flavor.

To substitute 1 tsp of baking powder in your recipe, use ½ tsp vinegar mixed with ¼ tsp of baking soda.

Lemon Juice

Lemon juice is highly acidic and provides just the right amount to trigger an acid-base reaction in baked goods when mixed with baking soda.

However, since lemon juice has a strong flavor, it is best to use it only in recipes that call for a small amount of baking powder.

This way, you can enjoy its leavening properties while also avoiding altering the taste of your final dish.

To replace 1 tsp of baking powder, use ½ tsp of lemon juice mixed with ¼ tsp of baking soda.

Molasses

Molasses is a sweetener formed as a by-product of sugar production. Since it is acidic in nature, it can be used as a replacement for baking powder when paired with baking soda.

To substitute 1 tsp of baking powder, use ¼ cup of molasses and ¼ tsp of baking soda. Keep in mind, though, that since molasses is sweet, you will have to adjust the amount of sweetness in your recipe.

If you’re interested in a fantastic explanation of the difference between baking soda and baking powder, here’s a great video from Alton Brown!

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