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 just a pudding flavor. Tapioca is the starch extracted from the cassava root. The cassava plant is native to Brazil, where it 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 highly usable 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. Tapioca must be soaked and then boiled with a liquid to form a gel and is therefore usually added to food prior to cooking.

Tapioca is opaque prior to cooking but turns translucent upon hydration. Tapioca pearls and powders are most often white or off-white, but the pearls can be dyed to just about any color. Colored tapioca pearls are most often used in desserts, like the popular Asian drink boba tea.

Nutritional Value

Because tapioca is the extracted starch from the cassava root, it is nearly 100 percent carbohydrates.

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, zero grams of fat, and zero grams of protein.

Tapioca is made from the cassava root, which does not contain gluten, therefore 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. Tapioca's thick, chewy texture is fun to eat, making it prime for desserts, gummy candies, and other fun foods.

With the industrialized food revolution, tapioca has seen many new uses. Tapioca is often added to soups, sauces, and gravies to create body and thickness 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. Tapioca 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 anywhere from one millimeter to 8 millimeters in diameter.

Smaller tapioca pearls are usually used for puddings, while the larger pearls are generally used to boba tea. Tapioca is also sold in flakes and powders, which are usually used to thicken sauces, soups, or gravies where a more confluent texture is desired.

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.