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What is Tapioca, Anyway?

March  9, 2016

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. 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. 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.

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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.

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.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“Manioc flour and tapioca (or tapioca starch) are not the same thing. The flour is really dry and often tosted, as the tapioca is fresher and can easily ferment if left in room temperature for a couple of days. They have different uses and the starch is the best for chewy textures.”
— Clara P.
Comment

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.
  • 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...

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

33 Comments

roberta November 30, 2018
can someone tell me the ratio of how many tablespoons of small pearl tapioca = 3 tablespoons of quick tapioca before soaking?<br />
 
Pat March 23, 2016
Just to clarify, for those, like me, who didn't recognise what elephant root is, it's apparently the same thing as eddoe (or some people call it taro or also dasheen) - so I guess it depends on where you come from what name you attach to it?
 
Clara P. March 23, 2016
I'm happy people are promoting tapioca but I'd like to clarify something. Manioc flour and tapioca (or tapioca starch) are not the same thing. The flour is really dry and often tosted, as the tapioca is fresher and can easily ferment if left in room temperature for a couple of days. They have different uses and the starch is the best for chewy textures.
 
Maria I. March 11, 2016
In the South of Brasil the Pearls are Cooked with Wine, sugar and cloves and served with creme anglaise. Its a desert called "sagu".
 
Renee D. March 9, 2016
can tapioca flour be used as a binder for veggie burgers?
 
Carla S. March 9, 2016
I use tapioca flour in my canine scent detection classes. It makes the best homemade non-crumbling dog treats which you cut cut into bite sized pieces rather than buying commercial dog treats. Recipe at:<br />http://wp.me/p74GTg-1P
 
Candi March 9, 2016
Thank you Bee. I appreciate your trying.
 
Valerie M. March 9, 2016
I loved my Mum's tapioca pudding - but she's now long gone. Anyone have a simple recipe to share? (From England)
 
Bee March 9, 2016
Valerie: WHAT do you remember from the recipe? Was it Minute Tapioca or Pearl? Did she add beaten egg whites to it or not? There's a couple of classic ways to make tapioca pudding.
 
Candi March 9, 2016
Thank you Bee!! :-)
 
Bee March 9, 2016
Hey, Candi. I've looked for 15 minutes for an AUTHENTIC Swedish Fruit recipe online and I can't find anything that resembles MY recipe. The ones that I've found are either close or wildly "off target" so I guess I'll have to commit some time to sharing it with you. As you know, cooks LOVE to change things up, like making guacamole out of mashed peas vs. avocados, so I attributing that need to update recipes to what I've found online. Many of the recipes I found had wine (a serious No-No!) or were based on FRESH fruit like seasonal berries and rhubarb. Authentic Swedish Fruit was an necessity in snowy and dark Sweden when anything you ate in Winter was salted, pickled, smoked or dried....there was NO fresh except milk and eggs if you had hens and cattle.) So, the original recipe relies on what a Swedish Farm wife had access to during the Summer, and what she dried for use in Winter. That doesn't mean that the new recipes aren't tasty, they just aren't historically authentic. <br /><br />Gotta go grocery shopping and pick up that coconut milk, now. LOL
 
Pat March 9, 2016
I'm a baby boomer who had no idea that tapioca was made from cassava. Growing up we hardly ever ate tapioca pudding unless we went to a restaurant to eat perhaps and my mother never made any kind of pie which would have been thickened with anything other than flour. That being said, when I did grow up and moved away from home I discovered cassava and used it, grew it and loved it for more than forty years but still had no idea that it was used to make tapioca. So this article was something new and interesting. Especially because cassava in its natural form does not keep well which is why some supermarkets in North America coat the root with wax I guess. It's a nice fact to know, but if processing the cassava to make the tapioca pearls removes all the wonderful cassava flavour that, I think, is a a real shame.
 
Bee March 9, 2016
I guess my life experiences are different than most people commenting on this thread. It's nice to read how many people have learned about the origins of tapioca; knowledge at ANY age is a Good Thing. I grew up in a farming community and we had an incredible Home Economics teacher who insisted that we "Know Where Your Food Comes From!", so we learned all about this stuff in class. That's where my fascination with knowing such things as cloves are the unopened flower buds from a broad-leaf evergreen tree and vanilla beans are actually orchid pods originates from. Also, by living on a farm and raising so much of our food, I became hyper aware of food origins. But, I realize that my life varies greatly from other people's.
 
Pat March 9, 2016
Wow! What a lot of information. I failed home ec (I made my home ec teacher cry when I produced a two-piece blouse with both darts on one side and none on the other side, and then clipped the collar at one inch intervals instead of the facing.) I knew about vanilla beans from the first time I encountered them because, being strange I looked it up right away, but cloves? My, how very interesting! Thank you for that information, Bee. I shall now have to look it up to find out what tree it was. The things you learn every day, eh?
 
Sunita J. March 9, 2016
I just made Sabudana Khichdi yesterday morning. It's a breakfast dish from Western Indian made with Tapioca pearls, stir fried spicy potatoes and roasted peanuts. It is also made when observing a fat to provide extra strength. The other popular snack is tapioca and elephant root deep fried dumplings. Fattening but delicious...
 
Sunita J. March 9, 2016
Have posted a instagram @masalasocial
 
Candi March 9, 2016
Bee, How do you make your Fruit Soup? It sounds wonderful!!
 
Bee March 9, 2016
Candi: It's a wicked good recipe that my Gran's Grand mother brought from Sweden back in the 1880's. I'll see if there's a similar recipe online to copy and paste as copying the original recipe HERE will be a bit time consuming. I'll update you with what I find. :D
 
Marília M. March 9, 2016
As another reader has commented, in Brazil we make a "tortilla" which itself is called tapioca. It might be 1/2" thick or really thin like a tortilla. Some like it plain, some prefer it dipped in coconut milk ou buttered, and many others eat it with any savory or sweet creamy filling. We usually pair it with coffee.
 
DeeDee March 9, 2016
@Bee, nice comment but kind of smug. You give good remembrances of what you DO with tapioca, the article does a good job of telling what is IS. At being almost 70 loving the pudding since childhood and cooking with it as an adult, I just learned it was from cassava/yucca. Did you always know that?
 
Bee March 9, 2016
DeeDee: it wasn't intended to be smug and I'm sorry that you interpreted it as such. Yes, I did know ALL of that about tapioca because A) I'm a Foodie that is obsessed with knowing all about the food I make and it's origins/history; and B) I used to be a moderator for years at a major food website and it was my JOB to know all of this stuff and post threads about it to create conversations. I hope that information erases your image of smugness.
 
Jovan March 9, 2016
I love making coconut milk tapioca pudding. First I cook the tapioca in water until it's clear, careful not to burn it. Then I add a can of coconut milk or cream and a little bit of sugar. I enjoy topping it off with a drizzle of honey or agave syrup.
 
Bee March 9, 2016
Jovan: I'm going grocery shopping later today and just added a can of coconut milk to my list to make YOUR recipe. OMG...it sounds like the BEST of both worlds! Thanks so much for sharing your recipe....(doing Happy Dance) :D
 
Chau K. March 9, 2016
Jovan, I'm a fan of the coconut milk tapioca too. It was what my mom used to make and it's a great vegan dessert option!
 
Bee March 9, 2016
Oh, I had to laugh when I read the header for this article, "What is tapioca?" LOL I'm saying this with the utmost kindness: ONLY a non-Baby Boomer would/could ask that question! Tapioca in all its myriad uses was ingrained in Baby Boomers right along with "A 1000 and 1 uses for Jell-O.!" ~snort~ Every girl growing up in the Boomer Generation was taught at Granny's knee how to add tapioca to fruit pies to set the liquid and how utterly fantastic REAL made-from-scratch tapioca pudding can be! Whether made with Minute Tapioca, small or large pearl tapioca (which requires overnight soaking), if you have NEVER tasted from-scratch tapioca pudding with a dollop of Lingonberry sauce or fresh raspberry puree, you've missed out on one of the greater taste treats in life! <br /><br />I'm Scandinavian so I also make Fruit Soup all Winter long and we eat it, daily. Topping steel-cut oatmeal, porridge, just a bowl of it, or used as a side dish with a pork or chicken dinner, fruit soap is a staple in our home. <br /><br />Very nice article! Thank you for bringing the Circle of Culinary Experiences back to forgotten or maligned treats that were the standard bearers in Days of Yore. :D
 
Smaug March 9, 2016
The article does go somewhat beyond tapioca as a manufactured product from the grocery store.
 
Smaug March 9, 2016
Yuca not to be confused with Yucca, the upright, spiky leaved plants common in the American Southwest (and California gardens). In Brazil, fried Manioc flour (farofa de mandioca, or just farofa) is sprinkled on cooked food as a condiment, much like parmesan cheese.
 
Ana C. March 9, 2016
I don't know how you use it as a condiment (besides inside the baked chicken) bc here at home we condiment the farofa with bacon, onions and other things and its a side dishe just like rice, beans and cooked mandioca.
 
Smaug March 9, 2016
?????I'm not sure what this means- condiment is not a verb (yet)- at any rate, haven't been to Brazil in 40 years, but at that time, a dish of farofa was served with just about any sort of made dish and sprinkled on like, as I said, Parmesan cheese.
 
Martha March 9, 2016
Thanks for pointing that out. I was picturing Yucca and didn't realize it was talking about something different.
 
Joan March 9, 2016
I use tapioca as a heavy cream substitute for soups. Soak 2 tablespoons tapioca in 1 cup water for at least 1 hour then bring to boil. Mix in 1/4 cup low fat ricotta cheese. Whisk mixture (I use an immersion blender) and add to soup.
 
Fernando P. March 9, 2016
In Brazil, we make tapioca tortillas by simply spreading out tapioca flour in a small cast iron skillet. After a few minutes, the grains naturally stick together and you can top it whichever way.
 
Way L. March 9, 2016
I've just made a tapioca mango pudding this afternoon. It's a family favourite. <br />Cook the tapioca pearls and cool down.<br />Blend some mango juice, 2 fresh mangoes and a little cocounut milk. Swirl in the cooled down tapioca pearls et voila!<br />We then top the pudding with cubes of grass jelly. <br />