Wheat starch is a carbohydrate found in wheat, but unlike other carbohydrates, it has been processed, removing most of the gluten from the carbohydrate. By washing wheat dough, wheat starch is extracted from the endosperm of the milled grain.
Wheat starch is low in gluten, and popularly used to thicken sauces and soups and add texture to baked goods.
What Is Wheat Starch: Origin & Uses
Wheat starch is processed from wheat grains, and the process of hydrolysis (or water washing) is used to wash the starch from wheat dough while removing most of the gluten content.
In ancient Egypt and Greece, there is evidence that wheat starch was boiled to create a glue to make paper, and later to glue book bindings when books were invented.
It’s possible to make glue from wheat starch because of the starch’s thickening and stiffening properties. Today, we still use starch to set collars and stiffen suits.
Wheat Starch Processing
Instead of washing the grains themselves, the wheat kernels are ground and mixed with water to make a dough, which is then washed.
The wheat water left over from washing the dough is left to evaporate, and the powder that forms as a deposit is wheat starch. This traditional process took a long time, and today’s modern industrial methods can produce wheat starch in mere hours.
Uses of Wheat Starch
Today, wheat starch is used in gluten-free baking, to thicken sauces, and to bind different ingredients in some recipes. Wheat starch also retains moisture, so adding it to a watery dish can help achieve the desired, thicker consistency.
Adding wheat starch to baked goods can improve their texture, bind ingredients, and develop flavor. Wheat starch is commonly used to make pastas, pastries, bread, and many other baked goods.
Wheat Starch Flour & Gluten
While wheat starch is not 100% gluten-free, the levels of gluten present are negligible. If fewer than 20 parts of gluten per million are measured in wheat starch, it’s a safe choice for those following gluten-free diets.
However, wheat starch is not completely gluten-free because control over the enzymatic hydrolysis process is problematic. It’s difficult to exactly control how much gluten is extracted and how the wheat starch reacts to the process.
If you have celiac disease or are gluten sensitive or intolerant, you may still be worried about the gluten content in wheat starch. Luckily, there are various naturally gluten-free alternatives to wheat starch you can use in your recipes.
Wheat Starch Substitutes, Alternatives, and Replacements
Since wheat allergies are becoming more commonplace, here’s a list of naturally gluten-free ingredients you can use in place of wheat starch.
Cornstarch is a popular wheat starch alternative because you can use it as a replacement in any recipe that requires wheat starch. Cornstarch is a carbohydrate that’s extracted from the endosperm of corn kernels, and then milled into a powder form. It’s gluten-free, and used as a thickening agent because the starch absorbs moisture well.
Use cornstarch in a one-to-one ratio when using it to substitute wheat starch in gravies, soups, or stews.
Tapioca starch, sometimes called cassava starch, is also gluten-free. It works well in savory and sweet dishes, and is thus a great alternative to wheat starch. Plus, tapioca starch is healthier than other starches like potato starch. Add this starch to your recipe near the end because it doesn’t withstand high temperatures well.
Use tapioca starch as a thickening agent and to add a glossy appearance to sauces, soups, stews, and gravies in a wheat starch replacement ratio of two-to-one. For example, add two tablespoons of tapioca starch for every one tablespoon of wheat starch in your recipe.
To make tapioca starch:
- Thoroughly wash the cassava root. Peel and cut it into small pieces
- Boil the root for 20 minutes to remove the deadly cyanide chemical
- Place the cassava pieces in a blender and add water. Blend the root until the final product is runny and a smooth consistency (like a runny smoothie). Add more water if needed
- Place a fine mesh strainer with a cheesecloth over a bowl and pour the cassava liquid over the double strainer, into the bowl
- Let the liquid in the bowl sit for an hour to separate. The starch will settle at the bottom, while the water will settle on top of the starch
- Discard the water and scrape the white starch onto a baking tray
- Let the starch dry out in a 225°F oven for two hours until you have a dry block of tapioca starch. Or, place in a dehydrator for 12–20 hours at 120°F
- When cool, grind the dry starch into a fine powder using a grinder or food processor
Rice starch is extracted from white rice, and it looks like white powder. It’s a good substitute for wheat starch because it has a neutral taste, so your dish won’t change color or taste when rice starch is used in place of wheat starch.
Use rice starch to thicken puddings, custards, soups, and more. Mix the rice starch with hot water to get a creamy and smooth texture. Substitute one part wheat starch with one part rice starch, and if the recipe uses flour, substitute the flour with rice starch using a 3:1 ratio.
Potato starch is a gluten-free starch powder that’s extracted from potatoes. It’s a great substitute for corn starch and wheat starch because you can use it in savory and sweet applications that often use these gluten-based ingredients. Substitute potato starch in a one-to-one ratio when the recipe calls for wheat starch.
Guar gum is a vegetable gum that’s extracted from guar bean endosperm. First, the husk of the guar bean needs to be removed, then the endosperm can be removed and dried. The endosperm is then processed into a powder, called guar gum.
Guar gum is a strong thickening agent, so it’s better to use too little and increase than to start with too much. Substitute 8 parts guar gum for one part wheat starch (1:8). For example, use 1/4 teaspoon of guar gum for every 2 tablespoons of wheat starch. If the dish isn’t thick enough, add just 1/8 to 1/4 of a teaspoon more to prevent over-thickening.
The biggest benefit of using guar gum is that you don’t need to use heat to get guar gum to thicken. Simply sprinkle over the dressing, soup mix, gravy, sauce, or dessert, and whisk until it’s completely incorporated to achieve the thickening effect.
Xanthan gum is also a vegetable gum, but it’s starch forms a glue-like texture that helps gluten-free baked goods and cheeses hold the same texture as their non-gluten-containing counterparts. Xanthan gum is made by fermenting sugar with Xanthomonas campestris, a plant bacteria.
Xanthan gum is used for its elasticity-enhancing and thickening properties, so use it as a replacement for wheat starch in a one-to-one ratio. If the recipe asks for a large amount of wheat starch, use a ratio of 1/2 cup of xanthan gum to 1 cup of wheat starch because too much of the vegetable gum can give your food a slimy texture.
Arrowroot powder is similar to potato starch, and it’s made from various plant starches, including the arrowroot plant (Maranta arundinacea). Arrowroot powder has a neutral flavor and is white, so it won’t add a strange taste or color to your dish, making it a great alternative to wheat starch.
Replace arrowroot powder in a two-to-one ratio, or halve the amount, when the recipe lists wheat starch as an ingredient. This wheat starch substitute is ideal for fruit jellies, sauces, fillings, and recipes where you don’t require long cook times. Cooking arrowroot powder for too long and at too-high of temperatures will decrease its thickening power.
Don’t use arrowroot powder in cream sauces because it’ll cause the milk to curdle.
Wheat Starch FAQs
This section will help demystify wheat starch, consider its similarities to other starch products, and also explain some riddles about the similarities and differences between different starches.
Is Wheat Starch the Same as Cornstarch?
Both wheat starch and cornstarch are fine white powders. Their molecular structures are similar, though cornstarch is made from corn, while wheat starch is made from wheat dough.
Cornstarch is a great alternative to wheat starch and can also be used in thickening soups and sauces. One difference between cornstarch and wheat starch is that cornstarch requires a higher temperature to combine with the other ingredients.
Are Wheat Flour and Wheat Starch the Same?
While both wheat flour and wheat starch are made from wheat kernels, they are not the same. Wheat flour is made by milling or rough-grinding wheat kernels, while wheat starch is extracted through milling, hydrolyzed with enzymes, and reconstituted through evaporation.
There is a substantial cost difference between the manufacturing of wheat starch and wheat flour, with wheat flour being produced through fairly cost-effective means.
Wheat starch has almost no gluten or protein, while wheat flour is moderate to high in both.
What Is Modified Wheat Starch?
Modified wheat starch is wheat starch that has been altered through the addition of chemicals or enzymes. These additional chemicals increase the lipid content of wheat starch, lending qualities like gelatinization to the wheat starch.
The aim of this modification is to improve certain qualities of the starch or suppress other less desirable qualities. Qualities that may be added through modification include thickening strength, encapsulation, and gelling. Modified wheat starch can aid specialized baking to produce highly processed foods such as Krispy Kremes and fast-food baked goods.
Other foods that commonly include modified wheat starch include:
- Instant foods like oats, instant noodles, puddings, pastas, pies, and soups
- Baked goods like donuts, pancakes, breads, pastries, and cakes
- Condiments like sauces and marinades
- Processed foods like candies, chocolates, ice creams, and pizzas