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What is Tapioca, Anyway?

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That is the question I asked myself in the dry goods section of my grocery store, surveying the shelf of tapioca products. We're likely best acquainted with tapioca in the form of tapioca pudding, or as the gummy pearls swimming at the bottom of our bubble tea, or as something we stir a spoonful of into pie filling.

But what is it, really, and what does it do?

From left: Large pearls, small pearls, instant tapioca, and tapioca flour.
From left: Large pearls, small pearls, instant tapioca, and tapioca flour. Photo by Bobbi Lin

Tapioca is made from starch of cassava root—a.k.a. yuca. And actually, you can eat yuca on its own, prepared in much the same way you'd prepare any other root vegetable. As Lindsay-Jean writes in this piece, cooked yuca has a sticky texture you'll recognize: Tapioca, its progeny, shares it. It's that stickiness that gives bubble tea and tapioca pudding their distinctive textures.

The humble yuca root.
The humble yuca root. Photo by Mark Weinberg

Tapioca is made by extracting starch from the cassava root: The roots are processed to separate out the plant's naturally occurring cyanide, and what results is the purified starch. You can purchase that starch as is (called tapioca, cassava, or manioc flour or starch—three names for the same thing), or as flakes, sticks, or pearls in a bevy of sizes. The last of these—the tapioca pearls—is so familiar that you, like I, might think of them as being tapioca's truest if not original form.

NB: Some tapioca, sold as "minute" or "instant," generally comes in a granulated form; that's what gives it its "instant" nature. Make sure you're using the kind of tapioca the recipe you're following calls for! Otherwise, your tapioca might not gel up like you're expecting it to.

Bubble Tea
Bubble Tea

Where to Find it

You can buy flour/starch, instant tapioca, and small pearls at nearly any grocery store. If you want large pearls or boba (large, black, sweetened pearls used for making bubble tea), you may have to order them online or go to a specialty store or Asian grocery. Once you have some on your shelves, it'll stay good in a tightly sealed container for about a year.

And if you're out of tapioca flour/starch, you can grind tapioca pearls very finely and use them in its place. (Flour and pearls are different only in form.)

How to Use It

  • Bubble tea! You'll want black tapioca pearls (often called "boba") for bubble tea. They get their color from brown sugar—which also gives them their flavor. (If you use regular tapioca pearls, your pearls won't taste like much of anything at all.) Buy the extra-wide straws, too—sucking pearls through a straw is half the fun.
  • Use tapioca (either instant or flour/starch) as a thickener for pies, soups, gravies, or puddings. Simply whisk a bit into whatever you'd like to thicken. And tapioca retains its texture even when frozen, which makes it a good option for thickening ice creams, soups, gravies, or anything else you might pop in the freezer—and it keeps whatever you're thickening glossy (and doesn't dull the colors or make them chalky at all, like flour or cornstarch might).
  • Tapioca pudding gets its name and its distinctive texture from tapioca pearls, large or small. It's as comforting and nostalgic as rice pudding.
Fluffy Tapioca Cream
Fluffy Tapioca Cream
  • Tapioca has a place in sweet soups, too—like this Chinese coconut red bean soup, this coconut and tapioca soup, or this Norwegian fruktsuppe.
  • Lighten homemade gluten-free flour mixes with tapioca flour: Tapioca flour is flavorless, very fine, and not very dense—which makes it a good candidate for mixing into and cutting some of the heaviness of homemade gluten-free flour mixes. And its naturally stickiness will help bind and make chewy gluten-free baked goods (or gluten-containing baked goods, as with these beignets), which have a bad rap for being crumbly. Here's a good guide for making your own gluten-free flour.
  • Substitute tapioca starch for cornstarch. Bob's Red Mill advises using 2 tablespoons of tapioca starch for 1 tablespoon of cornstarch. You can also substitute instant tapioca for cornstarch in most recipes (especially pie fillings) in a 1:1 ratio.

Or Make...

Bika Ambon (a.k.a. The World's Squishiest Cake)

Bika Ambon (a.k.a. The World's Squishiest Cake) by Sarah Jampel

Brazilian Cheesy Bread

Brazilian Cheesy Bread by Hannah Petertil

Vegan, Gluten-Free Double Chocolate Muffins

Vegan, Gluten-Free Double Chocolate Muffins by Gena Hamshaw

Browned Butter Pecan Ice Cream

Browned Butter Pecan Ice Cream by MrsMehitabel

How do you use tapioca? Tell us about it in the comments.

Tags: tapioca, what is this thing, boba tea, bubble tea