Substituting corn flour for white flour may be enticing for various reasons, such as cooking a gluten-free dish or simply because you're running low on white flour. In some cases, substituting can be done with simple modifications to the dish while in others, substituting one for the other just won't work. Be certain to know the role of flour in your recipe and follow some important rules to have a successful outcome. Take note that corn flour has a very distinct flavor that will impact the taste of your dish.
Understanding the Flour Breakdown
Flours of all kinds are composed of two main components that are important in cooking and baking -- starches and proteins. Starches act as important thickening agents and add lightness to baked goods. Proteins are important for flavor during cooking and for body and texture in baked goods. Gluten, the main protein found in white flour, becomes very elastic when it's mixed with liquid and worked into a dough. This elasticity contributes a great deal to the texture in baked goods like bread. During the rising process, the stretchy dough traps air bubbles allowing it to expand and hold in the air, even during baking. This is what makes bread soft and chewy and it's one of the things that is most difficult to replicate in gluten-free cooking. Corn does not contain gluten and, for this reason, it does not make an easy substitute all of the time.
As A Thickening Agent
If you want to substitute corn flour for white flour in a recipe calling for a thickener, it's no problem. Soups, stews, sauces and gravies often call for something to give them a little more body and this is accomplished by the addition of a starch. Substitute one-to-one, but be ready to add a little more corn flour if it doesn't thicken up enough. Coarse corn flour, such as polenta, will add some texture to the dish. For a very smooth sauce, consider using some other kind of starch such as cornstarch, potato starch or tapioca.
As A Crispy Batter
Sometimes recipes call for something to be dredged or coated in flour or beer batter before baking or frying. For recipes such as these, corn flour will do a fine job. Substitute one cup of corn flour for one cup of white flour to dredge or to make beer batter. Coarsely ground corn flour will make for a harder and crunchier coating and won't work well in beer batter, so be aware of this.
In Baked Goods or Stove-Top Breads
Substituting corn flour for white flour in baked goods is tricky. If the dish you are trying to make is something where gluten is not necessary, such as a cookie or a biscuit, you can make the substitution. Corn flour can be used to make good pancakes and waffles, too. Baking with corn flour is a different process than baking with white flour, though, so your best bet is to find a recipe specifically calling for the use of corn flour. If you are in a hurry and don't want to spend time looking, a good rule is to allow the flour to sit in the recipe's liquid for 15 to 20 minutes to soften. Add any leaveners after this time and mix well. Coarsely ground corn flour can be hard and heavy, so use a lighter grind if possible.
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