Cornstarch vs Baking Powder: Unraveling the Key Differences

Cornstarch vs. Baking Powder: Understanding the Differences

When it comes to cooking and baking, there are numerous ingredients that play a crucial role in achieving the desired results. Two such ingredients that often cause confusion are cornstarch and baking powder. While they may look similar, they serve different purposes and cannot be used interchangeably. In this article, we will explore the differences between cornstarch and baking powder, their uses, and potential substitutes.

What is cornstarch?

Cornstarch is a tasteless and odorless starch powder derived from the endosperm of corn. It has been used for centuries as a thickening agent in various culinary applications. Cornstarch is gluten-free, making it a versatile ingredient for people with dietary restrictions.
One of the primary functions of cornstarch is to thicken mixtures. When heated and exposed to moisture, the starch molecules in cornstarch begin to expand, unwind and link together, forming a network that absorbs moisture and thickens the liquid to which it is added. This process, known as gelatinization, is responsible for the thickening properties of cornstarch.
In addition to its thickening properties, cornstarch is also used as an anti-caking agent. It prevents ingredients such as grated cheese or powdered sugar from clumping by absorbing excess moisture and maintaining a desirable texture.

How to use cornstarch

When using cornstarch as a thickening agent, it is important to follow the proper procedure to avoid lumps and achieve the desired consistency. Here’s a simple guide to using cornstarch effectively:

  1. Make a slurry: Never add cornstarch directly to a hot liquid, as this can cause lumping. Instead, mix cornstarch with room temperature or slightly chilled water (or another liquid) to create a slurry.
  2. Add the slurry to the liquid: Gradually pour the slurry into the liquid you want to thicken, stirring gently. This ensures even distribution of the cornstarch molecules.
  3. Increase temperature: Gradually heat the mixture to allow the cornstarch to gelatinize and thicken the liquid. The thickening effect typically begins at 150°F (65°C) and peaks at about 180°F (82°C).
  4. Avoid excessive stirring: Once the sauce or mixture has reached the desired thickness, minimize stirring and avoid boiling, as excessive agitation and high temperatures can destroy the thickening effect.

What is baking powder?

Baking powder is a leavening agent used primarily in baking. It is a mixture of three essential ingredients: a base (usually baking soda or sodium bicarbonate), an acid (such as cream of tartar), and a buffering agent (usually cornstarch). Baking powder is designed to produce carbon dioxide gas when exposed to moisture and heat, causing the baked goods to expand and rise.
The presence of cornstarch in baking powder serves two purposes. First, it acts as a filler, preventing the base and acid from reacting prematurely. Second, the cornstarch absorbs any moisture that the other ingredients might be exposed to, ensuring the stability and effectiveness of the baking powder.

How to use baking powder

When using baking powder in baking recipes, it is important to use the correct amount called for in the recipe. Here are some guidelines for using baking powder effectively:

  1. Follow the recipe: Refer to the recipe instructions for the amount of baking powder needed. The ratio of baking powder to other ingredients determines the leavening effect.
  2. Single-Acting vs. Double-Acting: Baking powder can be classified as either single-acting or double-acting. Most commercial varieties are double acting, meaning they release some carbon dioxide gas when moisture is added and the rest during baking. Single-acting baking powder reacts primarily to high temperatures and is used primarily by professional pastry chefs.
  3. Handle with care: Store baking powder in a cool, dry place to maintain its potency. Exposure to moisture or excessive heat may reduce its effectiveness.

Can cornstarch and baking powder be interchanged?

Despite their similar appearance, cornstarch and baking powder have different roles in cooking and baking and cannot be used as substitutes. Cornstarch is primarily a thickening agent, while baking powder is a leavening agent.
Attempting to replace cornstarch with baking powder or vice versa will produce unfavorable results. Although baking powder contains cornstarch, the amount is not sufficient to achieve the desired thickening effect. Also, adding large amounts of baking powder to a recipe can result in a bitter and salty taste.
If you cannot find cornstarch, there are several alternatives that can be used as substitutes, depending on the purpose. Potato starch, rice flour, arrowroot flour, and wheat flour are all viable alternatives to cornstarch for thickening sauces and soups. It’s important to note, however, that each substitute may have slight differences in texture and thickening power, so adjustments may be necessary.
If a recipe calls for baking powder, it is not advisable to use cornstarch as a substitute. Baking powder plays a critical role in the leavening process, contributing to the rise and texture of baked goods. Without it, your baked goods may be dense and heavy.


In summary, cornstarch and baking powder are different ingredients with different purposes in cooking and baking. Cornstarch is primarily used as a thickening agent, while baking powder is a leavening agent. Understanding the differences and proper use of these ingredients is critical to achieving the desired results in your culinary endeavors.
Remember to follow the recommended procedures for using cornstarch and baking powder to avoid lumping or undesirable results. While cornstarch and baking powder are not interchangeable, there are alternative substitutes available depending on the application.
Next time you’re in the kitchen, armed with this knowledge about cornstarch and baking powder, you can confidently create delicious dishes and baked goods using the right ingredients for the job. Happy cooking and baking!


1. Can I use cornstarch instead of baking soda?

No, cornstarch cannot be used to replace baking powder. Cornstarch is primarily a thickening agent, while baking powder is a leavening agent used to help baked goods rise. Using cornstarch instead of baking powder will not produce the desired results.

2. What happens if I use baking soda instead of cornstarch?

It is not recommended to use baking powder instead of cornstarch. Baking powder contains cornstarch as a bulking agent, but the amount is not sufficient to provide the same thickening effect as pure cornstarch. In addition, using too much baking powder can result in a bitter and salty taste in your recipes.

3. Can I use another thickening agent instead of cornstarch?

Yes, there are alternative thickeners that can be used in place of cornstarch. Potato starch, rice flour, arrowroot flour, and wheat flour are common substitutes for cornstarch in thickening sauces and soups. It’s important to note, however, that each substitute may have slightly different properties, so adjustments may be necessary.

4. What is cornstarch used for in cooking?

The primary purpose of cornstarch in cooking is to thicken sauces, soups, gravies, and other liquid-based dishes. When heated and exposed to moisture, the starch molecules in cornstarch expand and form a network that absorbs moisture, resulting in thickening.

5. What is the role of baking powder in baking?

Baking powder is a leavening agent used in baking to help baked goods rise. It releases carbon dioxide gas when exposed to moisture and heat, causing the dough or batter to expand and produce a light and airy texture in the final product.

6. Can I substitute something else for baking powder?

If you don’t have baking powder on hand, you can make a substitute by combining baking soda with an acidic ingredient, such as cream of tartar or lemon juice. However, this substitute does not have the same double-acting properties as baking powder, so the leavening effect may be slightly different. It’s best to use baking soda if the recipe specifically calls for it.