It’s not the sexiest-sounding player in the pantry, but it sure is handy if you want to fry something. We reached out to a top chef—and onetime “Top Chef” contestant—for the nitty-gritty.
My cornstarch knowledge was until recently pretty basic. I’ve used it to thicken gravies and sauces, bind fruit in pies, and so forth. And I’ve used it in my deep-fry game, which is where it shines the most, creating chicken wings that are seductively crispy and lacy-edged.
But I didn’t really understand how cornstarch worked, or when precisely to use it in my frying. It turns out, the stuff is simply a “flour” made from the corn kernel, and is commonly used as a thickening agent. Chefs like that it’s gluten-free and largely disappears in the flavor of a dish.
I’d recently noticed it was lending a sort of crisp exterior to my plush pan-fried eggplant, and kept it from falling apart. (I’d coat salted, dried slices of eggplant in cornstarch before frying it.) So I reached out to Dale Talde of national mini-chain Talde and new Manhattan restaurant Rice & Gold. He specializes in “creative Asian-American cuisine,” and he had a lot to say about using cornstarch more smartly. Here’s how to use it, how not to use it, and why it tastes so familiar.
Which fried dishes can benefit from cornstarch?
Talde uses cornstarch in a batter for whole fried fish, thickening water with it to make what’s called a “slurry,” then packing it in more dry cornstarch before finally deep-frying it. “It creates this really lacy batter or crust around the fish,” he said. “It’s a Chinese method that I learned from a chef.” More simply, though, use it “any time—especially if there’s a gluten sensitivity—if you want something ultra-crispy.” Think: shrimp, chicken wings, beef, and certain veggies.
What is “velveting,” the Chinese cuisine technique employing cornstarch?
“Velveting” a protein, says Talde, “is kind of what makes Chinese food Chinese food.” Cornstarch is a major player in a velveting marinade, which might also include baking soda, rice wine vinegar, white pepper, egg white, Shaoxing wine, and sesame oil. (You might actually know the technique or the texture if you’ve ever had General Tso’s chicken.)
Is cornstarch a traditional Chinese cuisine ingredient?
Not necessarily. As Fuchsia Dunlop’s book Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking clarifies, “The Chinese use a variety of plain starches to thicken sauces and to give a silky mouthfeel to wok-cooked meat, fish and poultry.” Dunlop suggests buying potato flour, with cornstarch as a backup. As Talde adds, “Bad-good American Chinese food—if you’re trying to replicate it, cornstarch is a must.” He says it’s “Chinese people making Chinese food that they thought American people would like. Like General Tso’s chicken, 100 percent.”
Any specific tips for frying using cornstarch?
If you’re going to go beyond using cornstarch in a simple velveting marinade, and want to dip a food in it just before frying—a common technique seen in this delicious Vietnamese wings recipe, among others—you’ll want to somehow adhere the cornstarch to your food. Talde gently corrected my tendency to salt eggplant, dry it, and then pan-fry it in oil before adding it to pastas. I’d noticed that the cornstarch was flaking off my dried eggplant slices. “You got them too dry,” he said. “There has to be something that sticks to it. Don’t dry them too much.” Using a marinade before dipping them in cornstarch could also work.
Cornstarch is a “very, very sturdy starch,” notes Talde, excellent for creating crispy, lacy crusts on food. Make sure you’ve marinated or otherwise moistened your protein so the cornstarch will stick, and then go to town experimenting.
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, Gourmet, and Epicurious. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen.