Get Creative with Cornstarch: Quickly Create Thicker and Tastier Sauces under 10 Minutes
Sauces can transform a dish from ordinary to extraordinary by adding moisture, richness, and depth of flavor to your meals. But who wants to spend hours reducing sauces or preparing complicated ingredients? That's why I like to get creative with quick, custom sauces that are full of shortcuts. Most of my sauces are ready in less than 10 minutes but still bring tons of flavor. Keep in mind that cooking a sauce the traditional way will result in a better outcome, but I'd rather have a beautifully imperfect sauce every day than an elaborate sauce once a month.
Cornstarch is your secret weapon for creating delicious sauces in minutes. It's a gluten-free, low-carb thickener that doubles the thickening power of flour without altering the taste of your food. It also stabilizes fat and water emulsions, making it ideal for sauces.
Cornstarch: the shortcut to succulent and quick Sauces
The key to any of my sauces is a simple ingredient: cornstarch. If you have cornstarch (you may know it by its most well-known brand name, Maizena), you can create any sauce in minutes. Cornstarch has two main properties for sauces: it thickens and stabilises.
Cornstarch as a Gluten-Free, Low-Carb, No-Taste Thickener
One of the most common uses of cornstarch in savoury cooking is as a thickener for sauces, gravies, and soups. It's a great alternative to flour as a thickener because it has twice the thickening power of flour without altering the taste of the food. It's also low in calories and gluten-free, making it a good option for those watching their calorie intake or with allergies.
If you only have flour on hand, a similar effect can be achieved through a roux (cooked butter and flour), which also adds great flavor to a dish, but it requires slightly more work.
Cornstarch as an Emulsion Stabilizer
Another great property of cornstarch is that it stabilizes fat/water emulsions, which can be sensitive to heat when cooked at high temperatures. Ethan Chelebowski explains this well using traditional Cacio e Pepe as an example.
One of the challenges of the traditional recipe is emulsifying the cheese and pepper with the pasta's starchy cooking water, which can be sensitive to high temperatures, causing the cheese to become stringy. Without getting too technical: keep in mind that cornstarch allows for a wider temperature range when cooking without the risk of the sauce splitting.
How to use cornstarch to thicken sauces?
There are two main methods to use cornstarch in sauces:
• Cornstarch slurry in liquid: my favorite and easiest method, works perfectly when you have a bit of liquid.
• Cornstarch gel method: slightly more sophisticated but still easy when you have a very thin sauce with little liquid to thicken.
The cornstarch slurry method:
To use cornstarch as a thickener directly in a sauce, it must first be dissolved in a cold liquid, such as water or broth. This mixture, called a slurry, should then be slowly added to the hot liquid you wish to thicken, while constantly stirring. Upon boiling, the cornstarch molecules will expand and absorb water to create a gel-like texture, which will in turn thicken your sauce. It's important to note that cornstarch should not be added directly to the hot liquid, as it may clump. Be also aware that cornstarch sauces will continue to thicken as they cool, so it's best to stop thickening when the desired consistency is reached. When reheating the sauce, it will return to the intended texture.
The cornstarch gel method:
In a saucepan, mix 2 parts cold water and 1 part cornstarch. Place the saucepan on medium heat and stir continuously. As the mixture starts to heat up, it will thicken. Keep stirring until it reaches a gel-like consistency. Remove the saucepan from heat and allow the gel to cool.
How much cornstarch to add?
As a general guideline, here are the proportions:
• Gel: 2 parts liquid to 1 part cornstarch.
• For a thin sauce, use 1 tablespoon of cornstarch per cup of liquid.
• For a medium-thick sauce, use 1.5 tablespoons of cornstarch per cup of liquid.
• For a thick sauce, use 2 tablespoons of cornstarch per cup of liquid.
As an intuitive cook, however, I just add progressively until I have my desired consistency. As long as you dissolve it well in water or prepare your gel and add it off heat to bring it back to a boil, you can add it incrementally.
Creating Your Perfect Unique Sauce Using Cornstarch: a 4-Steps Template
Creating a delicious sauce can be a challenging task, but using cornstarch makes it easier. With just four key decisions, you can create your own bespoke sauce with no recipe required.
4 steps template for creating beautiful sauces
Step 1: Choose Your Liquid
The main liquids to choose from are stock, water, milk, or cream. Depending on the dish you're making, you may want to use a different liquid to enhance the flavour or texture.
Step 2: Choose Your Flavour
Adding fat or flavouring to your sauce is the next decision to make. Fat will add richness, while flavorings will add depth. Consider the type of dish you're making and the flavours that you want to complement or contrast with it.
Step 3: Choose Your Texture
Your sauce should have the right texture to match the dish it's going with. Decide whether you want it to be thin, creamy, or gel-like.
Step 4: Choose Your Quantity
The final decision is to determine the amount of sauce you need. Do you need a full sauce or just a bit of binding liquid to accentuate the flavor?
Example of Combinations:
1. Vegetables with Butter and Garlic Sauce
Flavour: Butter and Garlic
Quantity: Small amount to coat all the vegetables
Why it works: A small amount of this sauce helps the garlic to evenly coat all the vegetables, creating a harmonious blend of flavors. The water acts as a binding agent to help distribute the garlic and butter evenly.
2. Mushroom Ravioli with Mushroom and Milk Sauce
Liquid: Mushroom Stock and Milk
Flavour: Mushroom Pieces, Herbs, and Butter
Texture: Creamy with bits of mushrooms
Quantity: Full sauce
Why it works: This sauce enhances the mushroom flavour and adds creaminess to the dish, while still keeping the full mushroom texture intact. The combination of mushroom stock and milk provides a rich and flavorful base for the sauce, while the herbs and butter add depth and richness.
Caccio e Pepe with Cornstarch Gel
Liquid: Not liquid
Flavour: Cheese and Pepper
Quantity: Enough to coat the pasta
Why it works: The cornstarch gel adds a creamy texture to the dish, while the cheese and pepper provide the flavor. The lack of liquid allows the cheese and pepper to shine, making the dish simple yet flavourful. By using the cornstarch gel method, the cheese sauce will have a consistent texture, making it a foolproof method used by Roman chef Luciano Monosilio.
So now that you understand the principles, let's put them into practice to create your own bespoke sauce, with no recipe!
Bonus tips: 2 other great uses of cornstarch in savoury cooking:
Another common use of cornstarch in savoury cooking is as a coating for meats and vegetables. Cornstarch can be used in place of flour or breadcrumbs to create a crispy coating on fried foods. To use cornstarch as a coating, simply mix it with any seasonings or spices you desire and then coat the food in the mixture before frying. One benefit of using cornstarch as a coating is that it creates a thin, crisp coating without adding excess flour, making it a good option for low-carb and gluten-free recipes.
Cornstarch can also be used to marinate meats and vegetables, a technique common in Chinese cuisine, also called "velveting meat." When added to a marinade, it helps to coat the food and create a more even distribution of flavours, especially when combined with baking soda. To use cornstarch in a marinade for 250g / 8oz of beef cut into small pieces, simply mix 1 teaspoon of cornstarch, ¾ teaspoon of baking soda, and 2 tablespoons of water. Add it to your meat to marinate for 30 minutes before cooking it. You won't taste the cornstarch or baking soda, but they will create a velvety coating that will make your meat tender and rich.