Tapioca — not just for pudding!

I was making some Cherry Almond sweet rolls and one of the ingredients listed was “tapioca flour”. I’m sure most of you have heard of “tapioca” and may even have some in your pantry. However, this recipe made me think that some of you possibly have not heard of the different forms and their uses. That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Tapioca is a pure starch extracted from the root of the cassava (yuca, manioc) plant. (Note that yucca is a different plant.) It comes in several forms – granules, flakes, pearls and flour (or starch). Because these products undergo dehydration in the production process, they must be soaked or boiled before consumption.

Let’s start with the tapioca flour form. Although probably not in most of our pantries, this can be found in many of our supermarkets. It is just the pure starch that has been extracted from the root of the cassava tuber. Tapioca flour is a very fine, white powder. It is different from “cassava flour” as that is made from the entire tuber that has been dried and ground. So, although it is in a flour form, it has different nutritional and cooking properties from tapioca flour.

This pure starch, tapioca flour, is a powerful thickener but it can become stringy if overcooked. To counter this, manufacturers process it into small balls or pearls.

Pearl tapioca is a product prepared by soaking tapioca flour and cooking and then shaping and drying into pearls. Pearl tapioca is used mainly to thicken puddings and pie fillings but is also what is used to make bubble or boba tea. Pearl tapioca comes in different sizes from small to very large. Pearls must be soaked before cooking. Pearls are probably going to be much harder to find in your stores although there are many online sources.

Minute tapioca is processed further. Other names include instant tapioca, quick tapioca, instant pearl tapioca, tapioca granules or granulated tapioca. The pearls are cracked or flaked and cooked again followed by drying. This results in a starch that is almost completely cooked. I liked the explanation that says comparing regular pearl tapioca to instant tapioca is like comparing regular rice to instant rice. Although not everyone agrees, you can process quick cooking tapioca in a blender until powdery to substitute for tapioca flour. If you want to use tapioca flour in place of instant tapioca, you should use 1½ tablespoons tapioca flour for each 1 tablespoon quick cooking pearls. Instant tapioca granules do not completely dissolve; they may linger in pie fillings as soft, clear beads. If you do not want this, be sure to grind them first or use the flour form.

What are the uses for tapioca?

It is often used in making desserts, especially the classic tapioca pudding. I have seen recipes that use regular, small tapioca pearls and others that use the instant variety.

The flour is used as a thickening agent for pies, gravies and sauces. It thickens at a lower temperature than most starches so it is ideal for delicate ingredients that don’t stand up to boiling. Also, it is useful as a last-minute fix for a sauce that is not thickening properly. It is said to stand up better to freezing and thawing than other thickeners. To thicken 1 cup of liquid, use 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon tapioca flour.

If you want to use tapioca instead of other starchy thickeners such as flour or cornstarch, realize that there are differences. Some of the advantages are that, as opposed to wheat flour, tapioca is neutral in taste and creates a clear sauce (not opaque). On the flip side, it quickly loses its thickening power under prolonged cooking. So, it is most often used in applications where it will be chilled, such as desserts. It reaches its full thickening power at 150°F rather than flour’s 185°F. That makes it great for fresh fruit fillings and sauces that will have minimal cooking.

If you wish to try it, use these substitution guidelines.

  • For cornstarch – Use 2 tablespoons tapioca flour for each 1 tablespoon cornstarch.
  • For AP flour in thickening – replace in a 1:1 ratio.

Many people who wish to stay away from gluten find tapioca flour a nice gluten-free alternative although it is often used in combination with other gluten-free flours. It helps in creating a crisp crust and chewy texture in gluten free baked goods.

One final word of caution – Raw cassava root and peel contain naturally occurring cyanogenic glucosides, which can be harmful when ingested. It must be processed to make it edible.

Do you have tapioca in your pantry? If so, which variety do you have? How do you use it? Let me know! Whereas it is not one of those ingredients I find essential in your kitchen, there are certainly some nice uses for it.