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Simply Nutritious, Quick and Delicious

For a good gravy, you need a thickening agent

A pile of white flour on a wooden table with two pieces of grain laying over it. Contains an orange I block logo and Illinois Extension wordmark.

To make a good cheese sauce or gravy, you need a thickening agent. Cornstarch and flour are two common thickening agents in the home kitchen. Both are cereal starches and when they’re mixed with a liquid and then heated, they gelatinize.

While cornstarch and all-purpose flour can often be substituted for each other, the two have their differences. Cornstarch is pure starch made from corn. Flour, on the other hand, is made from wheat and contains starch and gluten, a protein responsible for giving bread it’s chew and elasticity. However, because flour is not solely starch, it has less thickening power than cornstarch. Thus, it takes twice the amount of flour (2 tablespoons per 1 cup liquid) to achieve the same results with cornstarch (1 tablespoon per 1 cup liquid).

Another difference is in the look. A sauce thickened with flour will be cloudy and opaque, while a cornstarch thickened sauce will look transparent and glossy. Pie fillings and fruit sauces are often made with cornstarch and flour works best for sauces prepared with fat, such as a cheese sauce (roux). Experiment with both options to see what achieves the best result!

Chicken and Dumplings

(Printable PDF)

1 Tablespoon olive oil

1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into 1-inch pieces

1 medium onion, chopped

1 cup celery, chopped

1 (1 lb.) bag frozen mixed vegetables

2 cloves garlic, minced

32 oz. no added salt chicken stock

1 teaspoon poultry seasoning

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon black pepper

1 cup non-fat milk

¼ cup all-purpose flour



1 1/3 cup all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

2/3 cup non-fat milk

1 Tablespoon margarine, melted

Add oil to a Dutch oven and heat on stovetop over medium-high heat. Add chicken, onion and celery. Cook 6-8 minutes until chicken is no longer pink. Add garlic, frozen mixed vegetables, stock and seasonings. Heat to boiling. In a small bowl, whisk milk and flour. Add to chicken mixture. Bring to a boil; reduce heat, cover and simmer. Meanwhile, in large bowl, stir flour and baking powder. In another bowl, stir melted margarine and milk. Pour into flour mixture and stir until just moistened. Drop spoonfuls of dough directly into simmering soup. Once all dumplings have been added, gently press them down so the soup runs over just the tops of them. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes until dumplings are cooked through.

Yield: 6 servings

Nutrition Facts (per serving): 380 calories, 8 grams fat, 500 milligrams sodium, 44 grams carbohydrate, 1 gram fiber, 30 grams protein



Exploratorium. Ask the inquisitive cooks. How does cornstarch work?


PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Immo Wegmann on Unsplash

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jenna Smith is a Nutrition and Wellness Educator with University of Illinois Extension, serving Livingston, McLean, and Woodford Counties. Smith uses her experience as a registered dietitian nutritionist to deliver impactful information and cutting-edge programs to Livingston, McLean, and Woodford Counties and beyond.

This blog post originally appeared in the Pantagraph on November 3, 2022.