What Is Tapioca?

A frying pan full of tapioca
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You're probably most familiar with tapioca in pudding form, but it's more than that. It's the starch extracted from the cassava root, also known as yuca, a plant is native to Brazil. There, it's is known as "mandioca," and its starch is referred to as "tapioca."

Cultivation of the cassava plant has spread throughout South America and Africa, while the culinary use of tapioca has become popular throughout the world. It's a staple in many countries but is unfortunately devoid of nutritional value. It's often used as a thickening agent.

Characteristics of Tapioca

Tapioca has a neutral flavor and strong gelling power, making it effective as a thickening agent in both sweet and savory foods. Tapioca must be soaked and then boiled with a liquid to form a gel and is therefore usually added to food prior to cooking. Unlike cornstarch, tapioca can withstand a freeze-thaw cycle without losing its gel structure or breaking down.

It is opaque prior to cooking but turns translucent upon hydration. Tapioca pearls and powders are most often white or off-white, but the pearls, used in desserts can be dyed to just about any color.

Nutritional Value

Because tapioca is the extracted starch from the cassava root, it is nearly 100 percent carbohydrate. Trace elements of other nutrients may remain in the tapioca, but tapioca is considered fat- and protein-free. One cup of dried tapioca pearls (152 grams) contains roughly 544 calories, 135 grams of carbohydrates, 0 grams of fat, and 0 grams of protein.

Because cassava root doesn't contain gluten, tapioca is gluten-free. Tapioca is a common ingredient in many gluten-free manufactured foods because it helps improve texture and moisture in the absence of gluten.

Uses for Tapioca

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 is often added to soups, sauces, and gravies to create body because it has more thickening power and is less expensive than flour and other thickeners. Tapioca can be added to ground meat products, like burger patties or chicken nuggets, as a binder and ingredient stabilizer. It is also often added to doughs, especially gluten-free products, to improve the texture and moisture content. When tapioca is added to filled bakery desserts, like danishes, it traps the moisture in a gel, preventing the pastry from becoming soggy during storage.

How to Purchase and Store 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. Tapioca is a dry product and can be stored indefinitely as long as it is kept sealed tightly to prevent exposure to heat and moisture.