Pudding & Its Thickener: Cornstarch vs. Arrowroot Powder

I rediscovered pudding almost a year ago when my son turned one. Despite my cheerleading of wheat in the last post, I actually did not let James have any until he was over one (read Real Food for Mom and Baby sometime, it’s brilliant). That left not a lot of options for his birthday dessert. I decided on a decadent chocolate pudding, but I hadn’t made pudding in years. So I followed a recipe to the tee (which I almost NEVER do), and actually tripled it based on a guess for the quantity that the recipe would produce and the quantity of people coming to the party. I was wrong on both counts. To say that I had a bit of pudding left over is an understatement.

But the whole experience taught me a few things. First, pudding is super basic yet totally elegant when presented right. Second, pudding is kid-friendly and not too bad for you in terms of desserts so it’s a good addition to the mom-repertoire. Third, it’s probably not necessary to ever triple a pudding recipe.

My love of pudding re-established I have been making it regularly. However I ran into a major snafu this last month. Travis and I have been working on becoming a GMO-free household. And yep, you guessed it, no more cornstarch.* Arrowroot powder is a common replacement for cornstarch, but the batch I tried to make a few weeks ago yielded what could only be called condensed and sweetened almond milk. So I set out to really tackle this problem (I had hoped to also make a pudding thickened with tapioca for comparison but I ran out of time, ah well).

Celebrating pudding’s utter simplicity, I made the most basic pudding I could think of: 2 T of thickener in a stainless steel bowl over a pot of boiling water (also called a double boiler for those with a more tricked out kitchen than mine) with 1.5 c cold milk slowly added. Scrape with a spatula and stir regularly for 10 minutes, then begin to scrape and stir continuously for another 5 minutes. Add 1/2 tsp vanilla, 3 T maple syrup, and a dash of salt, then continue to scrape and stir until the mixture is thickened. This took another 5 minutes with the cornstarch and another 10 minutes with the arrowroot powder. Pour into a custard cup or dish and refrigerate until serving (note: this size recipe will make one large serving or two small ones).

And the verdict? The pudding with arrowroot powder was the popular favorite, although there was one vote for the cornstarch-thickened pudding and no one declared the cornstarch pudding inedible or unpleasant. The arrowroot pudding was declared the winner for its smoother texture and its mellower flavor. The holdout for the cornstarch pudding preferred its tangy taste but agreed that the texture of the arrowroot pudding was better.

So given my research pre- and post-cooking, here are my recommendations:

  • if you’re sweetening with syrup, use arrowroot powder to thicken. Cornstarch tends to c lump – one of the ways to prevent this is to mix it with granulated sugar before adding the milk which is not an option here;
  • if you’re committed to using both cornstarch and maple syrup, make a slurry with cornstarch and a little bit of water adding milk
  • be sure to add cold milk to the arrowroot powder – it will clump if the milk is hot;
  • if you are making a pudding with a delicate or mild taste, use arrowroot powder – cornstarch takes on odors during the wet milling process and its traces of lipids oxidize so that it also develops a relatively strong taste of its own, whereas arrowroot powder is tasteless (Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking, pp614-616);
  • in my experience, pudding is easy to undercook and hard to overcook – when in doubt, leave it on a few more minutes. It should thickly coat the spoon, or when you stir it should no longer leave trails along the side of the bowl. Forgive me for stating the obvious, but it will be done when it is simply behaving like a pudding. Of course, appearances can be deceiving – I cooked both puddings to the same stage but the cornstarch one turned out to be a little more watery. Just use arrowroot powder. There, I said it.

Go forward and make pudding!

—————————————————————————————
*A friend reading a previous post asked why it was that I almost never use confectioner’s sugar. Well, first off, “almost never” has just turned into “never”. And second off, confectioner’s sugar is granulated sugar and cornstarch. For some time I’ve been avoiding unnecessary foods with a highly processed corn component such as cornstarch, corn syrup, or high fructose corn syrup – pudding was one of the few cornstarch exceptions after I realized that it’s rather necessary. But overall I’ve stayed away from processed foods (read, foods that can be heated up and eaten, or already made cereals, cookies, etc.) for some years now, in part because I just like to cook so much, in part because I became addicted to shopping at farmers’ markets and using fresh produce, and in part because of books such as Nourishing Traditions that outline the health hazards hidden in processed foods. But after reading Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma I cut out most items containing processed corn. The following passage is worth quoting at length:

“First we separate the corn into its botancial parts – embryo, endosperm, fiber – and then into its chemical parts,” Johnson explained as we began our tour of the plant. When a shipment of corn arrives at the mill, it is steeped for thirty-six hours in a bath of water containing a small amount of sulphur dioxide. The acid bath swells the kernels and frees the starch from the proteins that surround it.

After the soak, the swollen kernels are ground in a mill. “By now the germ is rubbery and it pops right off,” Johnson explained. “We take the slurry to a hydroclone” – basically a centrifuge for liquids – “where the germ floats off. After it’s dried, we squeeze it for corn oil.”…

Once the germ has been removed and the kernels crushed, what’s left is a white mush of protein and starch called “mill starch.” To draw off as much of the protein and starch as possible, the mill starch undergoes a progressively finer series of grindings and filterings and centrifuges. The extracted protein, called gluten, is used in animal feed. At each step more fresh water is added – it takes about five gallons to process a bushel of corn, and prodigious amounts of energy. Wet milling is an energy-intensive way to make food; for every calorie of processed food it produces, another ten calories of fossil fuel energy are burned.
At this point, the process has yielded a white slurry that’s poured out onto a stainless steel table and dried to a fine, superwhite powder – cornstarch. Cornstarch comprised wet milling’s sole product when the industry got its start in the 1840s. At first the laundry business was its biggest customer, but cooks and early food processors soon began adding cornstarch to as many recipes as they could: it offered the glamour of modernity, purity, and absolute whiteness. By 1866, corn refiners had learned how to use acids to break down cornstarch into glucose, and sweeteners quickly became – as they remain today – the industry’s most important product. Corn syrup (which is mostly glucose or dextrose – the terms are interchangeable) became the first cheap domestic substitute for cane sugar. (p87-88)

Gross. And sort of awe-inspiring in a science fiction kind of way. What we manage to do to a single plant amazes me. Our science is so advanced that we can pretty much turn food into a relation of plastic. Alright, that’s an exaggeration. But we certainly turn a tasty food (who doesn’t love summer corn-on-the-cob?) into some barely food-like components.

So there it is. That’s why I almost never have confectioner’s sugar or cornstarch in my kitchen. I’ll save the detailed explanation of why the “almost never” is transitioning to “never” until after election day. California Proposition 37, I’ve got my eye on you….

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7 comments

  1. Elena Abbott

    Riva,
    This is fascinating stuff! It must finally be time for me to read Omnivore’s Dilemma, based on the number of questions now percolating in my head after reading this post. I don’t even remember the last time I had cornstarch in the house, which shows you how frequently it crosses my mind to make pudding… but now I feel like I have an ethical reason to back up my personal food preferences 🙂 Quick question, that I did not quite understand from your post: did you figure out what produced the sweetened, condensed almond milk effect in your problem pudding? Though I totally see how effectively arrowroot worked when you got into the experiment, I wasn’t clear on why you think it didn’t in your initial pudding. On a side note, I absolutely must track down cookie sheets small enough to fit in my teensy oven (I have half sheets that still don’t fit!) so that I can make whole wheat maple shortbread! Yum!!!
    I’m so glad you’ve started blogging all your incredible food knowledge!

    • rsreynolds

      Wow, I totally didn’t comment on that, shows you how scattered I am:) And no, I have not determined whether the culprit was not enough arrowroot powder or whether it was not long enough cooking time. I’m inclined to think the latter, given that I did need to cook it longer in my comparison experiment. I probably got overexcited and took it off the burner too early! I used the “condensed milk” later in brownies, it wasn’t half bad. And good luck finding small cookie sheets! Oh city kitchens, so cute, so impractical for projects.

  2. morgan

    As usual, a thought-provoking and informative post. As a Californian, I’d like to publicly endorse prop 37 as well as the city of Richmond’s historic Measure N to tax sugary beverages. And Reeves, have you tried chia seeds in pudding instead of tapioca balls? Very healthy and oh-so tasty.

    • rsreynolds

      Chia seeds?! No, I hadn’t tried that but it is oh so intriguing… I clearly need to do a follow-up post with tapioca and chia seeds. Drat, I’ll have to eat more pudding:)

  3. Marcia

    Are you against using Wholesome Sweeteners Organic Powdered Sugar? They use tapioca starch in place of corn starch. Just curious. Enjoyed reading your post and found it very helpful because I am making chocolate pudding for my husband tonight & he is allergic to corn (eggs, dairy & chocolate). He can, though, eat raw cacao powder and semi-sweet chocolate chips by Enjoy Life without any problems (thank goodness!). It took me 30 years to find some chocolate he can eat. Worth the wait! Another book you might enjoy reading is “UNPROCESSED” by Chef AJ. Thanks again for your information.

    • rsreynolds

      No, I’m not opposed to that, it sounds like a great product and I would love to try it! I have actually been playing with rice flour in puddings, making variations from Claudia Roden’s Middle Eastern pudding recipes and it makes a thinner pudding, which I’m really enjoying. But I’ve been thinking about frosting (I have a frosting post I did a while back and I’d like to re-address the issue) and I don’t love the arrowroot powder in frosting – this tapioca starch powdered sugar might be perfect!

  4. Sharmila

    Just want to say that I have used arrowroot powder in chcolate pudding a few times since discovering your website. I was searching for a recipe that used arrowroot powder. Before that I have never made pudding from scratch and I would never make the instant jello mix…no way! It is my go to dessert when I want something simple and easy. Even eating it warm is like a hot chocolate drink, like the kind in Chocolat.
    Thank you!

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