When talking about cornstarch, a lot of emphasis is place on the importance of creating a slurry. Swirling and suspending the starch in water or milk (or some other liquid) keeps it from clumping up in your sauce and ensures everything thickens up all nice and even like. Slurries are important, but they are only part of the equation when it comes to maximizing cornstarch’s thickening properties—one must also pay attention to heat.
If you mostly use cornstarch to thicken pan sauces, you probably haven’t encountered any issues with this, as pan sauces tend to be quite hot. But if you try to thicken up a cold liquid, or a gravy or sauce after it’s cooled a bit, adding a cornstarch slurry won’t do a dang thing. According to Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, corn starch can require a gelation temperature (the temp where the granules starts to swell and thicken) of as high as 180℉. This isn’t quite boiling, but it’s hot.
Luckily, you don’t have to heat your sauce to exactly 180℉; overshooting it a bit will work just fine. To make sure your starch has a chance to thicken to the best of its ability, bring your liquid to a simmer, whisk in your slurry (two parts water to one part starch will work), and let it cook for a couple of minutes, keeping in mind that your sauce or gravy will continue to thicken up on the plate. (You can get a preview of its final consistency by spooning a little onto a cold plate.)
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