Extracted from the dried roots of the Cassava plant, tapioca flour is white in color, usually slightly sweet in flavor and very high in starch. Tapioca flour is used throughout the world as a thickening agent. This type of flour also is popular as a grain-free, gluten-free baking ingredient.
Tapioca flour is most commonly used as a thickening agent in sauces or desserts or as a component in baking. The flour itself is a superior binder, and it possesses a fairly bland and neutral flavor by itself. It often is substituted for cornstarch or arrowroot starch, although each of these starches affects cuisine differently. Tapioca flour is particularly gummy and becomes translucent and shiny when cooked.
When one is baking, tapioca flour should not be substituted directly for wheat flour. If tapioca is desired as a gluten-free flour substitute, it usually is combined with potato starch, xanthan gum and then an additional gluten-free flour such as rice flour. Such a combination is necessary to obtain all of the desired textural elements of most baked goods.
Nutritionally, tapioca flour is predominantly starch. It is relatively low in calories but also low in essential vitamins and minerals. The limited nutritional profile of tapioca flour accounts for its use as only a thickener in much of the developed world.
Tapioca’s parent plant is cassava, or Manihot esculenta. Also sometimes called manioc or yuca, cassava is native to South America. Although it is still eaten by people in South America, cassava is now cultivated in tropical and subtropical areas around the globe and has been for many hundreds of years. Indeed, cassava roots remain a staple food for millions of people.
The cassava tuber is not consumed extensively beyond the tropics and subtropics. Tapioca, however, appears in diverse cuisines throughout the world. Common dishes made from tapioca include puddings, tapioca pearls, chips, flatbreads and fufu.
Cassava roots contain chemical components called cyanogenic glucosides. When eaten, these chemicals interact with an enzyme also present in the cassava that releases hydrogen cyanide. Cultures around the world that cultivate cassava have developed traditional methods of preparing the cassava roots that eliminate the danger of cyanide poisoning. The sweeter varieties of cassava, which normally are used to produce tapioca flour, contain lower quantities of the dangerous cyanogenic glucosides. The process of extracting the cassava starch to produce the flour then eliminates the rest of these toxic compounds.