A popular ingredient in Latin and Caribbean cuisines, yuca is a long tuberous starchy root that must be cooked before eating. It is also known as cassava root and is often misspelled as "yucca," which is actually the name of an unrelated plant in the agave family. Yuca (pronounced "joo-kah") has a nutty, earthy flavor that's well-suited in cuisines that hail from where the tuber originates, including various Caribbean islands, South America, Africa, and parts of Asia.
Because the roots, peels, and leaves contain cyanogenic glucosides that are toxic, yuca should never be eaten raw. The variety typically sold for home cooking in the U.S. is sweet cassava, and its cyanide content is removed by peeling and cooking the tuber. (Bitter-tasting yucas produce up to a gram of cyanide per kilogram of fresh roots. That type of cassava root must be soaked and cooked for hours before it's safe to eat.) The root is gluten, grain, and nut free, making it a potential food substitute for people with allergies.
How to Select and Store Yuca
Yuca is available in the produce section of some grocery stores and Latin and Caribbean food markets. The root is covered in wax, which preserves the outer skin as it travels. Select those that are firm and free from blemishes or soft spots. The roots should have a clean fresh scent and snowy white center when cut open. The best way to check if the root is still good is to break off the end of the yuca. If the flesh has black specks, lines, or any discoloration, it should be discarded. Rotten or decaying yuca has soft brown spots and a putrid smell. You can also find frozen peeled and cut yuca.
Unpeeled cassava should be stored in a cool, dry place like the pantry, where it will last one week. Once the cassava is peeled, it will last two to three weeks in the refrigerator covered with water, with the water changed every two days. Yuca can also be frozen for three months.
How to Prepare Yuca
Before using yuca, it needs to be peeled, cut, and cooked. Unlike when peeling potatoes and other root vegetables, the best tool for peeling yuca is a knife. Because of the thick skin and protective wax coating, a vegetable peeler is not recommended; it will end up being a frustrating process and can possibly cause injury.
Peel the Yuca
Before peeling, the yuca should be rinsed and the ends cut off. It is easier to peel in smaller portions, so slice it into two- to three-inch segments. Stand the root up on its end and slice vertically along the edges until the skin has been completely peeled off. You can also use your fingers to help pull off the brown skin. Starting with the thicker end of the root (if there is one), use your thumbs to get under the edge of where you cut, going below the brown skin and the first white layer, and peel the skin downward.
Cut Out the Core
Although you can cook the yuca first and then remove the core, it is recommended to remove the core before cooking. Stand the root pieces on end and cut the peeled root in half lengthwise to expose the woody core. Next, cut the yuca halves lengthwise in half again, so that the root is now quartered into long sticks with the core exposed. Cut off the inner corner of each yuca wedge to remove the woody core and discard it (similar to a pineapple). The cassava is now ready to cook in a recipe or stored for future use.
How to Cook Yuca
Because of its mild taste and starchy consistency, this tuber can be used in a variety of recipes, basically in the same way that you might prepare potatoes—steamed, baked, mashed, boiled, or roasted. Yuca is also often fried and made into chips, similar in preparation and taste to potato chips; the root vegetable is also turned into yuca fries, which are just as crispy and delicious as french fries. Yuca can also be eaten similarly to mashed potatoes, combined with butter, roasted garlic, or grated cheese, or topped with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil or a large spoonful of caramelized onion.
The most common Caribbean cassava recipe is for casabe, a cassava flatbread. Yuca is also an essential ingredient in yuca con mojo, a Cuban dish of cassava in garlic sauce.
Once cassava is cooked, it turns from a snow-white color to a pale yellow. Cassava is also used to make tapioca and farina and is pulverized into flour to use in bread, baked goods, and as a gluten-free replacement.
How to Boil Yuca
Cassava root is boiled in the same way as potatoes. Boiled yuca can be eaten as is, flavored with other ingredients, mashed and seasoned, and used in recipes that call for boiling the yuca first.
Place the cut and peeled yuca pieces in a pot, cover with cold water, season with salt, and bring to a boil.
Lower the heat and simmer until tender, about 20 minutes.
How to Fry Yuca
Drain the boiled cassava well and pat dry.
In a deep, heavy-bottomed pan, heat 2 inches of vegetable oil to a temperature of 350 F.
Add the yuca to the hot oil in batches, making sure not to overcrowd the pot. Fry until golden brown, turning occasionally.
Remove yuca fries or chips with a slotted spoon or skimmer and place them on paper towels to drain.
Yuca vs. Yucca
Although they have similar spellings and are sometimes confused for each other, yuca and yucca are very different. While yuca is an edible root, yucca is an ornamental plant. It does bear edible fruits, seeds, and flowers, but is not related to the cassava root. Yucca is part of the agave plant family and is found in the southern and western United States.
The fried yuca is delicious with a spicy dipping sauce, avocado sauce, or a simple salsa. The cassava root can also be made into yuquitas rellenas, stuffed fried yuca balls where the yuca is boiled, mashed, and formed into a ball that is stuffed with cheese. The ball is then fried, coated in a breadcrumb mixture, and fried again.