The other night at our house we had a make-your-own-nacho bar with some friends. My friend, Janina, had shared an amazing Food Renegade recipe for homemade cheese sauce (which is earth shatteringly phenomenal!) a few months prior so I had to make it for our get together!
Instead of thickening the sauce with corn starch or a roux (a flour and butter mixture); you use an egg yolk, milk, and some arrowroot powder. We ended up throwing in a couple more tablespoons of the arrowroot powder and I was amazed to see how it thickened the milk base like a roux or cornstarch would! Which prompted me to ask myself: what on earth is arrowroot powder?!
What is Arrowroot Powder?
Arrowroot Powder (sometimes known as Arrowroot Starch) is white and powdery just like cornstarch. It is derived from a tropical South American plant and, like cornstarch, is used as a thickener in recipes. The plant was given the name “Arrowroot” because it was once used to treat those injured with wounds from poison arrows. The Native Caribbean Arawak people made arrowroot a foundation of their diet and valued it for its amazing healing benefits (i.e., it would draw out the poison from wounds).
What are the differences between Arrowroot Powder and Cornstarch?
Cornstarch is a powdery substance made from (surprise!) corn and is used to thicken gravies and sauces. However, since the advent of Genetically Modifier Organisms (GMOs), almost all cornstarch is made from corn that has been genetically engineered (which to me is a bad science fiction version of food!). You can buy non-GMO cornstarch but it is usually more expensive. The process of extracting cornstarch can be quite harsh as well, utilizing chemicals and high heat to transform the corn into the powder in the can.
Cornstarch is not only for food, it also used in adhesives, batteries, garbage bags, deodorant, make-up, and more. The process of obtaining cornstarch is as follows: the corn is hulled from the cob and then soaked in warm water (around 130 degrees) mixed with sulfur dioxide (which is also used to extract metal from ore and, according to dictionary.com: “used chiefly in the manufacture of chemicals such as sulfuric acid, in preserving fruits and vegetables, and in bleaching, disinfecting, and fumigating.”). It will then soak for one to two days. During this time, the corn and starch separate and create sulfurous acid. The corn is drained and then the endo-sperm is separated from the corn to make the starch. The endo-sperm travels through strainers and screens to separate the gluten and starch. The separated starch is at this point considered “common” cornstarch and can be converted into fermented products or sweeteners. For any “modified” cornstarch, it is treated in another step with chemicals or enzymes. I would strongly recommending reading this PDF from Corn.org if you would like to learn more about cornstarch and how it is derived.
You use cornstarch by making a “slurry”, which is mixing the powder into a cold liquid such as water or milk and whisking until the powder is dissolved. You then pour the “slurry” into the hot liquid creating a thickened sauce.
Arrowroot powder is extracted in a much different manner. The arrowroot is a tuberous plant which is washed, peeled, and grated into finer pieces. These arrowroot pieces are strained, allowing the liquid to drip off. The starch is in this liquid. In traditional societies, they would throw sea water on top of the grated arrowroot throughout the process to draw out the starch. They would then catch the liquid and let it settle. The sea water would rise to the top and the starch would settle to the bottom. It is rinsed several more times with clean water and then drained of all liquid. What is left is harden starch ball that will finish drying in a shaded place for another two to three days. It is then broken down into the fine, white powder we can get on our grocery shelves. The modern process of obtaining arrowroot powder is very similar to the process of traditional people with just a few differences in tools and processes. I found this explanation of the extraction process:
“After being soaked in hot water, the tubers are peeled to remove their fibrous covering (this prevents a bitter taste and off-color in the final product.) Next they’re cut into small pieces. The cut tubers are then mashed to a pulp and macerated to break down the tough cells surrounding the starch.
The pulp is washed on screens to separate the starch from the fibrous material. The settled starch is then centrifuged or filtered to further separate it from fiber fines and other soluble material (this process can be repeated to obtain greater purity). The separated starch is finally dried and ground to powder.”
How Can I Use Arrowroot Powder?
Arrowroot powder can be used very similarly to cornstarch by way of making a “slurry”. You must be careful to not overheat it though as arrowroot is more delicate than cornstarch and will breakdown quicker when heated too long or at too high of a temperature.
You can use arrowroot powder to thicken soups, sauces, and stews. It works exactly like cornstarch but without the scary refinement process or question of: “are there GMOs in this?”. It is one of the easiest starches for the body to digest as well, which gives it bonus points in my book!
Tapioca root and arrowroot are commonly confused, but are truly much different things. Due to mislabeling throughout the years be sure to buy the best arrowroot powder you can with only one ingredient: arrowroot, pure.
2. About.com – Arrowroot
3. Dictionary.com – Cornstarch
4. Corn.org (PDF)
5. EPA.gov (sulfur dioxide)
7. Dictionary.com – Sulfur Dixoide
8. Traditional Arrowroot Production and Utilzation in the Marshall Islands by Spenneman