Arrowroot is an easily digested starch extracted from the roots of the arrowroot plant, Maranta arundinacea. The starch is used as a thickener in many foods such as puddings and sauces, and is also used in cookies and other baked goods. The arrowroot plant is native to the tropics of South America. It has a long history of cultivation by native peoples, who developed an extensive treatment process for extracting the usable powder from the roots. The roots are washed, scraped, beaten, soaked, pulped, and finally forced through a sieve. The liquid and fine powders that make it through the sieve are dried, leaving the useful arrowroot powder behind.
When Europeans first encountered arrowroot, the Arawak Indians informed them that it was called aru-aru, “meal of meals.” The Indians placed a high value on the root as a food, and the Europeans duly brought it back with them along with numerous other unusual plants and animals. Arrowroot was also used medicinally, with some Indians believing that it should be placed on wounds made with poisoned arrows to draw out the toxins. Also, because of its digestibility, the starch was used medicinally in Victorian times to wean infants from mother’s milk and nourish those with dietary restrictions.
Arrowroot starch does not turn sauces cloudy, and it works at temperatures below a simmer. There is a secret to a smooth sauce with arrowroot starch. Bring the sauce base to a simmer over medium-low heat. Next, whisk ¼ cup water and 2 Tbsp. arrowroot starch together to make a slurry. Stir the slurry into the simmering sauce and heat for one minute or until thickened. Arrowroot starch is also gluten free. It’s an excellent substitute for cornstarch and flour as a thickening agent in sauces, gravies, pie fillings, and puddings. Arrowroot starch is neutral tasting and tolerates acidic ingredients, such as citrus. The starch also freezes well and dissolves well at lower temperatures. In fact, it must be cooked over low heat as it doesn’t endure high temperature cooking and does not reheat well. Also, arrowroot does not do well in milk-based cream sauces (it changes the texture), but bakes well in cakes, cookies and biscuits made with milk.