Tapioca flour, sometimes known as tapioca starch, is made from the root of the cassava plant, which is native to South America. It is extracted from the starchy root as a by-product of the process of making manioc flour, a staple food that is ground from the cassava tubers. These are then squeezed out, producing a starchy liquid that contains a sediment made up of fine-grained tapioca starch that looks and feels very similar to corn starch.
Tapioca flour is slightly gelatinised to make tapioca pearls, for which it is warmed in water in order to break down the bonds between the starch molecules. You can make boba for bubble tea by making a soft dough from tapioca flour and water which can then be shaped into small pearls or it can be made into cubes or other shapes if you want a different mouthfeel.
Gluten free cooking with tapioca flour
There are three main types of gluten free flour: oat flour, sweet rice flour and tapioca flour and many gluten free flours are a mixture of various combinations of some or all of these. It is a hugely useful flour as it does not have a strong flavour which makes it incredibly versatile, and it is a good source of calcium and iron.
Tapioca flour is a great thickening agent, which makes it ideal for some recipes but doesn’t lend itself to straight substitution in recipes for cookies and cakes. However, it is the perfect substitute for regular flour when it comes to thickening gravy or other sauces as it absorbs water and creates a thicker and more substantial sauce. It can be used in stews and soups as a thickening agent as well because it has a neutral taste that doesn’t impact the flavours of the other ingredients.
The thickening powers of tapioca flour have led to it being used as a substitute for gluten. Because it wants to bond with other substances, it acts a little like gluten by binding the ingredients together and giving them the bounce and stretch that normally only comes from gluten.
This is one of the reasons tapioca flour is used in a number of gluten free flours, particularly in commercial bakeries where tapioca prevents the baked goods from crumbling and helps them to maintain their structure.
One of the most appealing qualities of tapioca flour is that it browns well and forms a strong, golden crust when fried. It is ideal for dusting chicken, fish and other foods before deep frying for a crust that looks and tastes great. Tapioca flour is often included in gluten free batters for the same reason, so it is commonly found on the menu in gluten free fish and chip shops. When blended with other flours, tapioca helps the outside of baked goods to form a good crust and develop an appetising colour.
How to get the most from tapioca flour
When using tapioca flour in cakes and batters, you should make time to rest your batter before cooking to allow the tapioca to absorb the liquids in the mixture effectively. This helps the batter to thicken and allows you to adjust the moisture levels before baking. While most recipes call for tapioca flour as part of a blend, there are some recipes that use tapioca flour on its own such as Brazilian cheese bread.
Tapioca flour can be used in a similar way to cornflour, although tapioca has a slightly sweet taste and gives a shiny appearance and a more velvety texture, so it is favoured in recipes where those qualities are required.