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Small amounts of cornstarch are used to thicken and glaze. The cornstarch is always first mixed with cold water, broth, or other liquid until smooth, then it is stirred into the hot food during the final stage of cooking. If cornstarch is overcooked, it loses its thickening power. Cornstarch-thickened products do not freeze well, as the gravy tends to break down and lose its smothness. Therefore, if you plan to freeze a dish, don't add the cornstarch until the food is reheated and ready to serve. Arrowroot is an acceptable substitute for cornstarch as a thickening agent, but flour is not.
Flour will not work in smoothly in a stir-fried dish, it requires more cooking than cornstarch, and does not make a lovely glaze of a cornstarch-thickened sauce.
Many Chinese chefs avoid the use of cornstarch or any thickener, maintaining that well-prepared dishes need no such addition. Others feel that the thickener enhances the texture and appearance of certain preparations. Dishes served in Chinese-American restaurants are likely to be glazed with a cornstarch-thickened sauce: the patrons expect the glaze.
Cornstarch has other uses in Chinese cooking as well. Diced pieces of meat are coated with it before stir-frying. It makes a crispy coating for fish and deep-fried meat and poultry. It is an ingredient in batters. Flour can also be used for coating and in batters, but flour and cornstarch are not always interchangeable in recipes because they react differently with some ingredients.
From: Chinese Kosher Cooking Betty S. Goldberg Jonathan David Publishers, Inc., 1989
Entered by: Lawrence Kellie