What once used to be a treatment for poisonous arrow wounds or as medicine for the very ill is now used as a thickener in sauces, or for baking some sweet treats. Arrowroot has a long history of uses. It was around the 1840s that it became popular for cooking when it was found to exhibit similar properties to cornstarch. However, the outcome in using one or the other differs slightly.
The only time I've ever thickened a sauce was when I made a hollandaise for a food science class. That being said, my experience with Arrowroot is limited to seeing it in the organic section at the supermarket. I was interested in finding out more information on Arrowroot powder because healthy food labels are sometimes thrown on products for the sake of making them more expensive. Is this gluten-free, paleo-friendly, and vegan product worth all that? I decided to find out.
What is Arrowroot?
Arrowroot is a plant that grows in tropical climates. After one year of cultivation, the rootstocks are dug up to be transformed into a powder. The root of the plant gets soaked in hot water, and then removed of its fibrous covering, which has a bitter taste to it. It is then cut up and mashed up to extract the edible starch. The starch dries out and becomes the arrowroot powder.
How is it different from cornstarch?
The starches we use in cooking either come from grain or roots and tubers. Corn is a grain starch and has a higher content of protein and fat, which means it needs a higher temperature for thickening. The final look is opaque or matte-like.
Starches that come from roots or tubers, like arrowroot, have less protein and fat, so thickening occurs faster and at a lower temperature. Since the root starch granules are finer and retain more water, the gel produced is silkier and more translucent.
Is Arrowroot powder healthier for you?
Various resources claim that arrowroot has immune-boosting properties, can treat UTIs, improve blood circulation, and help with metabolism due to the its complex of B-vitamins. However, keep in mind that you gain these benefits when you allow your body to digest the plant as it normally would with any other fruit or vegetable. Once it's processed into flour, most of the nutritional value is downsized.
Cookbooks from the 1850s included arrowroot recipes for sick children. According to one study, it was a useful treatment for the side effects of irritable bowel syndrome, but that's about all of the scientific data that confirms its healing benefits. Turning that argument around, many identify cornstarch as a highly-processed food made from genetically-modified corn. Although, whether exposure to GMO-foods is toxic or not, is still an on-going debate.
#SpoonTip: Using arrowroot powder in vegan (or frozen fruit) ice-creams can help prevent crystallization and give it a richer consistency
If you're wondering when to cook arrowroot powder, use if for thickening towards the end of the cooking process, or for maintaining a more neutral flavour. Go for cornstarch (or grain-based starches) when thickening at the beginning, like for a stew or mac and cheese. If you're in possession of neither, here are some alternatives to help you out.
Sometimes I find that "gluten-free" gets thrown around excessively on foods that shouldn't even contain gluten in the first place. However, considering arrowroot's versatility in cooking, it is important to be aware what kind of product it really is. If you're suffering from a corn allergy or who are known to have a sensitive digestive system, arrowroot is an ideal alternative.