An indispensible addition for the kitchen cook

March 22, 2022

One thing my mother never taught me to do growing up was how to cook. Why, I’m not exactly sure. But my guess is that she found the whole process messy and, by adding kids into the mix, even messier.

So, except for a few basic things such as pancakes and eggs, everything I ever learned about cooking occurred as an adult. Needless to say, there were several attempts and fails.

I learned about the various basics needed in one’s kitchen and today, March 22, marks the date in 1841 when one Orlando Jones patented one of those basics which was a process for extracting alkali starch from plants. He then applied this technology to corn, creating a product cooks everywhere appreciate and use: cornstarch.

Cornstarch: and indispensable thickener

The Infallible Wikipedia tells us this:

“Corn starchmaize starch, or cornflour (British English) is the starch derived from corn (maize) grain. The starch is obtained from the endosperm of the kernel. Corn starch is a common food ingredient, often used to thicken sauces or soups, and to make corn syrup and other sugars. Corn starch is versatile, easily modified, and finds many uses in industry such as adhesives, in paper products, as an anti-sticking agent, and textile manufacturing. It has medical uses as well, such as to supply glucose for people with glycogen storage disease.

Like many products in dust form, it can be hazardous in large quantities due to its flammability—see dust explosion. When mixed with a fluid, corn starch can rearrange itself into a non-Newtonian fluid. For example, adding water transforms corn starch into a material commonly known as oobleck while adding oil transforms corn starch into an electrorheological (ER) fluid. The concept can be explained through the mixture termed ‘cornflour slime’.”

Okay, so that information is a bit more geeky than I usually share. Back to the use of it in cooking. It is an indispensible item in my kitchen and is used to thicken Asian stir fries, gravy’s, soups, and all sorts of things. It’s also essential for anyone who requires gluten free foods. Cornstarch provides a lighter consistency than another traditional thickener, a flour and water slurry.

I cannot recall when I learned about cornstarch. It was probably in conjunction with my first Chinese cookbook back in the early 1980’s. What I do know is that my kitchen is never without cornstarch; the small yellow box among the other staples: flour, sugar (white, brown, and confectioners), salt, and baking soda.

Keep this in mind as the story unfolds. Back in the 1980’s the hubby and I had a subscription for a program called “My Great Recipes.” Every month a handful of recipe cards would arrive in the mail. These would be dutifully filed into a rather large molded plastic holder. They were numbered and categorized and, if you finished the entire program, they filled the recipe box with meat dishes to desserts and everything in between. We found many great recipes through this program.

One day I decided to try a recipe which was named “Oriental Ham” or “Sweet and Sour Ham” or something along those lines. I’ll be darned if I can find the recipe now! It required leftover ham – which I had – and then pineapple, red and green peppers. Seemed doable.

Porsche, me and my brother nineteen eighty something. Apparently we were eating popcorn that night and NOT inedible baking soda stir fry.

At the time, besides the hubby and me, my brother and our cat, Porsche, lived with us. My brother was at work that evening when I got busy making dinner. I cut up the ham and vegetables. I started a pot of rice. I heated oil in the electric wok in preparation of the meal. All was going well. One more thing which was required was to take cornstarch and mix it with a couple tablespoons of water to create the thickener.

As the moment arrived to add the cornstarch water mix, I stirred it one last time and then dumped it into the wok and it promptly boiled up in the pan like a miniature volcano. Weird, I thought. That’s never happened before. It should have clued me in that something was wrong, but it did not.

Instead, I served the meal to the hubby and we each took a bite and promptly spit it out. It was inedible.

Not willing to admit that the dish belonged in the garbage, I took a piece of ham and gave it to the cat. He turned up his nose at it and walked away. So I put the food in the fridge thinking by the next day it might be better.

Porsche, who looked at me with ‘judge-y’ eyes like these more than once. No doubt the night of the baking soda fiasco he gave me this look.

Sometime later that evening my brother – who worked afternoons and evenings – arrives at the house and he finds the leftovers. Which he puts on a plate, heats up, takes one bite and then throws the rest out. Needless to say, ALL of it ended up in the garbage the next day.

I cannot recall what it was which finally solved the mystery for me. Perhaps it was a few days later when I went to pull out the cornstarch and realized I had, instead, grabbed the baking soda. The light bulb in my head suddenly illuminated. Cornstarch and Baking Soda are NOT interchangeable. One will thicken things and the other creates a salty mini-volcano.

Lesson learned. Or so I thought. Fast forward thirty years and I’m making a beef stir fry one evening. All is going well until the moment I add the ‘cornstarch’ slurry and – in a repeat of that infamous night – I watch in horror as the mixture erupts into the telltale volcano.

This time, however, I shout “Shoot” or some variation of that word, yank the wok from the stove, dump the beef into a colander and thrust it under the faucet. The meat now wet and cold I examine it and think it’s worth a try to add new spices and, instead of baking soda, cornstarch.

I’m happy to report that the quick rinse did eliminate the baking soda and, unlike that fateful night in the early 80’s, dinner was saved.

Now, in my defense, the manufacturers of cornstarch and baking soda seemed to choose packaging which made the two boxes easy to mix up. After the second incident I started buying my cornstarch from Costco so that the two containers will never again be confused. I might also have taken a black sharpie and written on the boxes in large letters what’s inside. One cannot, after all, be too careful when it comes to cornstarch.

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