There’s nothing worse than a thin sauce or a watery stew, but such undesirable outcomes can happen to the best of us, which is why the kitchen gods have blessed us with cornstarch—a magical powder that will bring body to your dish in a jiffy. (Fun fact: Cornstarch is so good at thickening things up, you can even use it to make slime.) As such, in a perfect world, you’ll always have some on hand. In reality, however, your pantry has just let you down in a time of need and now you’re in search of a cornstarch alternative. Fortunately, we know a few stand-ins that will save the day, or at least your dinner.
Need a Cornstarch Alternative? These 5 Substitutes Have Got You Covered
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What is cornstarch?
You’ve probably heard of this pantry staple, but what is cornstarch exactly? This common cooking ingredient does indeed come from corn; more specifically, the super starchy part of the corn kernel called the endosperm. Once the endosperm is separated from the rest of the kernel, it is then ground into an ultra-fine powder to make cornstarch—a thickening agent that is used in everything from soups and stir-fries to decadent custards.
Is cornstarch the same as corn flour?
Glad you asked. The short answer is no, but there’s a caveat. If you’re living and cooking stateside, then you can be certain that corn flour and cornstarch are quite different ingredients, and cannot be used interchangeably. In the U.S., cornstarch is sold as a fine white powder—an appearance that indicates it was ground from only the starchy bit of the corn kernel. Then there’s the yellow and comparatively coarse stuff we call corn flour—a type of flour ground from the whole dried kernel. The two aren’t hard to tell apart and they do different jobs. Easy peasy...unless you travel across the pond, that is, in which case the writing on the package may very well cause some confusion. In the United Kingdom, cornflour (one word this time) is, in fact, the exact same thing as what we call cornstarch. The takeaway? If you’re abroad, your best bet is just to look for the visual indicators we mentioned (white vs. yellow and fine vs. coarse) to ensure you buy the right kind of corn stuff for your cooking needs.
Given that cornstarch is a key thickening agent, you’re probably putting two and two together and realizing that if you dispense with it entirely, there’s a good chance your food will turn out a tad too soupy, at best. So does that mean you should abandon your culinary vision just because a recipe calls for cornstarch and you’ve been cleaned out (or never had the stuff in your pantry to begin with)? Absolutely not. In fact, there are quite a few ingredients that can take the place of cornstarch, and we’d be willing to bet you have at least one of ‘em hanging out in your kitchen right now. Without further ado, here’s a list of cornstarch alternatives—courtesy of David Joachim, author of The Food Substitutions Bible—that will help you avoid a last minute grocery run (or worse, a cooking catastrophe).
1. Arrowroot Powder
This one is commonly used to replace wheat flour in gluten-free baked goods, but it also does a bang-up job as a thickening agent. As such, arrowroot powder is a popular stand-in for cornstarch that performs well in most any recipe. Per Joachim, it’s also a particularly good choice for sauces that will be served immediately and foods that require long cooking times. For the swap, simply use 1 to 1 ½ tablespoons arrowroot powder for every tablespoon of cornstarch.
2. Quick-cooking Tapioca (tapioca Starch)
Quick-cooking tapioca is, of course, the base for the pudding of the same name. However, on its own, tapioca starch is simply a neutral-tasting and highly versatile thickening agent that can be used as a cornstarch substitute in almost any situation—just keep in mind it isn’t quite as potent, so you’ll need 2 tablespoons tapioca starch for every 1 tablespoon of cornstarch for this one to work.
3. All-purpose Flour
Now for the cornstarch alternative you’re most likely to have on hand. That’s right—whether you’re dredging soon-to-be-fried chicken tenders, whipping up a pie filling, or thickening a sauce, all-purpose flour will do the trick. For adequate thickening, it’s best to substitute 3 tablespoons of all-purpose flour per tablespoon of cornstarch. It’s also worth noting that all-purpose flour performs best when there’s enough heat to burn off the raw flavor—so it’s not a great choice for, say, salad dressings.
4. Instant Mashed Potato Flakes
If you’ve got a box of instant mashed potatoes hanging around, you’re in luck. Those dehydrated potato flakes will hit the spot when you have a late-night comfort food craving (duh), and it just so happens that they also have your back when you’re feeling ambitious. Use just 2 teaspoons of instant mashed potato flakes for every tablespoon of cornstarch, and you’re in business. (Note: The same substitution ratio can be used with potato starch, if you’re fancy.)
5. Rice Flour
Rice flour is yet another gluten-free thickening agent that can do the work of cornstarch—particularly when it comes to recipes for baked goods and crispy fried foods that call for the stuff. For this one, simply substitute 2 tablespoons rice flour for every tbsp of cornstarch and you’re good to go.