You might know tapioca as the base of a sweet pudding, but this gluten-free starch extracted from the cassava root can be used as a thickening agent in both sweet and savory dishes.
Cultivation of the cassava plant, a native of Brazil also known as yucca, has spread throughout South America and Africa, while the culinary use of tapioca has become popular throughout the world.
- Uses: As a thickener in soups, stews, gravies; to add moisture and texture to baked goods
- Characteristics: Gluten-free
- Types: Pearls, flakes, and flour
- Cost: Inexpensive and widely available
What Is Tapioca?
Tapioca has a neutral flavor and strong gelling power, making it effective as a thickening agent in both sweet and savory foods. Unlike cornstarch, tapioca can withstand a freeze-thaw cycle without losing its gel structure or breaking down, making it an ideal thickener in ice cream recipes.
Tapioca starch can be purchased as flour or instant flakes; it's opaque prior to cooking but turns translucent upon hydration. Tapioca pearls and powders are most often white or off-white, but the pearls, frequently used in desserts, can be dyed to just about any color. Tapioca pearls come in large and small sizes. Boba are large sweetened pearls often dyed black and used for bubble tea.
Traditional uses for tapioca include tapioca pudding, bubble or boba tea, and other candies and desserts. Both tapioca pudding and boba tea are made with pearled tapioca, or small balls of tapioca starch that turn into a chewy, gummy ball when cooked.
In addition, tapioca adds body to soups, sauces, and gravies; it has more thickening power and generally costs less than flour and other thickeners. Tapioca can be added to ground meat products, such as burger patties and chicken nuggets, as a binder and ingredient stabilizer. It traps moisture in a gel, so it's often added to baked goods to prevent the pastry from becoming soggy during storage. Tapioca is a common ingredient in gluten-free products because it helps lighten the texture and maintain moisture in the absence of gluten.
How to Cook With Tapioca
Tapioca pearls must be soaked for up to 12 hours and then cooked in boiling liquid to form a gel. Quick-cooking or instant tapioca, with a more granular texture, can be whisked into soups, gravies, jams and jellies, pie fillings, and other creamy concoctions to act as a thickener. Tapioca flour can be used in place of other flours and as a 1:1 replacement for cornstarch.
What Does It Taste Like?
Tapioca does not have much flavor on its own, but when sweetened and added to desserts such as pudding, it adds texture and heft. The lack of flavor is an advantage when it's used to thicken savory dishes such as soups and gravies.
Arrowroot and potato starch make appropriate substitutes for tapioca starch, as they share many characteristics, including their gluten-free status. In a pinch, you can use wheat flour to thicken a sauce instead of tapioca, but it does add gluten to the recipe. Cornstarch may work in some applications as well, particularly dairy-based sauces, but keep in mind that it adds cloudiness to a liquid whereas tapioca adds a glossy sheen, a desirable quality in a pie filling.
In addition to its thickening ability, tapioca can star in recipes both sweet and savory.
Where to Buy Tapioca
Tapioca is most often sold in pearl form, which can range in size from 1 millimeter to 8 millimeters in diameter. Smaller tapioca pearls are usually used for puddings, while the larger pearls are generally used in boba tea. It is also sold in flakes and powders, which are usually used to thicken sauces, soups, or gravies.
Tapioca pearls can be found at most major grocery stores in the baking aisle. Flakes and powders are usually sold at health food or natural food grocers. You may need to look online for boba, the larger tapioca pearls.
Tapioca starch is a dry product and can be stored indefinitely as long as it is kept sealed tightly to prevent exposure to heat, moisture, and bugs. Do not store any type of tapioca in the refrigerator or freezer.