Natural starches contain a mix of two basic starches -- a long, straight-chain starch, amylosa, and a short, brached-chain starch, amylopectin. A starch's characteristics change according to its differing proportions of amylose and amylopectin.
Grain starches like wheat, corn or oats contain 22 to 27 percent amylose, a relatively high amount. They:
Root starches like tapioca and arrowroot and waxy starches contain up to 99 percent amylopectin. They:
In many cases, it is easy to pick the right starch. For a coconut cream pie, you need a starch that thickens enough to slice -- go with flour or cornstarch. For a stir-fry, you need a clear coating -- go with cornstarch because it is clear when hot. But a cherry pie presents problems because you need clear hot or cold. This would mean a root starch like tapioca or arrowroot. While this will give you a clear, thick coating, it will thin a little when reheated. You can mix starches -- use mostly tapioca for clarity and just a little cornstarch to make it thicken and reheat well.
Asian grocery stores are a great place to buy starches. They have arrowroot, potato starch, rice starch, tapioca starch (a powder), wheat starch, etc. at a fraction of their cost in regular stores.
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Shirley O. Corriher is a writer, author, biochemist, teacher and lecturer. She writes a column for The Los Angeles Times' "Great Chefs" series as well as articles in the Journal of Biological Chemistry. Her book Cookwise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Cooking is received a James Beard award.