What is tapioca flour?

A person sifting tapioca flour.

Extracted from the dried roots of the cassava plant, tapioca flour is white in color, generally slightly sweet in flavor and very rich in starch. Tapioca flour is used all over the world as a thickening agent. This type of flour is also popular as a grain-free and 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 on its own has a fairly mild, neutral flavor. It is often substituted for cornstarch or arrowroot starch, although each of these starches affects cooking differently. Tapioca flour is particularly sticky and becomes translucent and shiny when cooked.

Tapioca flour comes from dried cassava roots.

When baking, tapioca flour should not be replaced directly with wheat flour. If tapioca is desired as a gluten-free flour substitute, it is usually combined with potato starch, xanthan gum, and then an additional gluten-free flour such as rice flour. This combination is necessary to obtain all the desired textural elements of most baked goods.

Tapioca flour has a slightly sweet taste and is rich in food starch.

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 only as a thickener in much of the developed world.

The mother plant of tapioca is manioc, or Manihot esculenta. Also sometimes called cassava or manioc, cassava is native to South America. Although it is still consumed by people in South America, cassava is now grown in tropical and subtropical areas around the globe and has been for many hundreds of years. In fact, cassava roots remain a staple food for millions of people.

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The cassava tuber is not consumed extensively beyond the tropics and subtropics. Tapioca, however, appears in many cuisines around the world. Common dishes made with tapioca include puddings, tapioca pearls, chips, flatbread and fufu.

The cassava plant is native to South America and is still widely cultivated on the continent.

Cassava roots contain chemical components called cyanogenic glycosides. When eaten, these chemicals interact with an enzyme also present in cassava that releases hydrogen cyanide. Crops around the world that grow cassava have developed traditional methods of preparing cassava roots that eliminate the danger of cyanide poisoning. The sweeter varieties of cassava, which are typically used to make tapioca flour, contain smaller amounts of the dangerous cyanogenic glycosides. The process of extracting cassava starch to produce flour eliminates the rest of these toxic compounds.

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