Cornstarch is magic.

Make food yummy and science experiments messy.

Cornstarch is one of those ingredients that I never thought about. For most of my adult life, I loved cooking, but didn’t delve too deeply. I’d make a meal a few times per week or bake yummy cookies. That’s about it.

However, once my kids were born I realized just how into food I was. I’m now a special occasion baker, a nightly dinner planner, and a lunch-time prepper for hubby and elementary school kid. I spend a lot of time in the kitchen and a lot of time thinking about the kitchen.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t make complicated food. I’m not great at decorating cakes or making a meal look like a work of art. What I’m getting better at is using up what’s in the pantry/fridge. So if I have extra pears, you might see an Italian pear cake. Extra citrus (like I have now) will result in some lemon short bread or orange chicken.

Using up what’s available means getting creative. And that means you have to have some key ingredients on hand. These staples go beyond what I used to think of basics. They now include cornstarch.

Cornstarch is like a secret ingredient. No one really knows its there, but it helps you pull off some great food tricks.

Orange chicken, pudding, meringue…

Speaking of orange chicken, I will never again make the stuff without cornstarch. After I cut up pieces of chicken breast, I put it in a bag and shake it with a generous amount of our good friend. It helps the chicken crisp up and helps again when I’m making the sauce. I’ll write up my orange chicken recipe in another post. (For those of you paying attention, this is a one pan, one process meal)

My favorite dessert is pudding. If you use cornstarch to make it instead of “the box,” it is called creme patissiere (or pastry cream). I’m not going to give you the recipe, but you can find it easily. It’s a bit eggier than pudding, but very simple, and so delicious. I need to go make some right now…

Ok I’m back.

I’ve only made one meringue, but it started to weep immediately. Weeping/beading is when liquid sugar bleeds out at weak points in the structure. Further meringues are tend to shrink in the fridge. They are unstable and unsightly.

A friend of mine from college revealed that there were a few techniques required beyond whipping egg whites and sugar to achieve a stable meringue.

Here is what he told me:

“My Meringue is made with the usual sugar, egg white, salt, and vanilla extract, but also with a “roux” mixed in that is made with sugar, cornstarch, and water brought to boil. It does not bead. It also does not shrink after refrigeration, and this method keeps the weeping down to a minimum. Filling should still be hot when putting the meringue on to keep weeping down. 400F for 12-14 minutes.”

There are a ton of other things cornstarch does, like coat marshmallows and mochi to keep them from sticking. They are also the secret to luscious alfajores (Argentinian sandwich cookies filled with dulce de leche). Don’t worry- I plan to make those soon.

SCIENCE!

And finally, nothing in the kitchen happens without science. So it is really fun to take food and conduct experiments. These are great for a rainy day activities, or when you are trying to keep the kids from watching TV until their brains mush.

To make mud or ooze put cornstarch into a bowl and add a drop or two of food coloring. Add the water slowly, mixing the two by hand until all the powder is wet. Keep adding water until it feels oozy when you’re mixing it slowly.

While your kid is not listening, you can tell them about other non-Newtonian fluids, and how to escape quicksand or a vat of ketchup.

Be sure to get really nerdy about it; mention how Newtonian liquid flows at specific rates, but that this is a suspension. Pressure forces the particles into a locked position to hold shape. Watch this video of people filling shallow pool with cornstarch and water and walking across it. Fail at keeping your kids from falling down the YouTube rabbit hole.

Once you get their attention again, invite them to punch the ooze, to see that it is hard, and then stick fingers in slowly to pick it up. The goo will melt through their fingers and you’ll get cornstarch everywhere. YAY.

If you want to get really messy, consider adding borax and glue and make bouncy balls.

Mix together 1/2 teaspoon of borax, 3 tablespoons of cornstarch and 4 tablespoons of warm water thoroughly. Put 1 teaspoon of white glue into a separate container with a few drops of food coloring mixed in. Add the cornstarch, borax and water mixture to the glue. Roll the ingredients together between your palms until it becomes rubbery. Form into round balls after the stickiness is gone.

In reality, cornstarch is not that hard to clean. It is inexpensive and fun and will expand your food repertoire. Go make some magic.

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