Tapioca flour is made from the tuberous root of the Manihot esculenta plant, which is native to Central and Southern America. This woody shrub is more commonly known as manioc, cassava, or yucca, and in addition to being the source of this flour, it is also used to produce tapioca and whole in recipes in which it may be fried, steamed, or stewed. It has been used by Native Americans for centuries, and many Latin American cultures call for it in traditional recipes.
For people who are not making Latin American food, the primary reason to use tapioca flour is that it is gluten free. It can be used in recipes for cakes, biscuits, and other dishes, either on its own or in combination with other gluten-free flours. The flour has a coarse, mealy texture and a nutty flavour with a faint hint of acidity that can be quite distinctive.
The best source for this flour is a supermarket or organics store. It may also be labeled manioc flour, polvilho, yucca flour, or cassava flour. The flour is made by grating the raw tuber, allowing the pieces to dry, and then grinding them. Some cassava plants have dangerous substances in their roots that require people to soak the roots before and after grating, to leach these substances out; manioc flour is perfectly safe to use as-is, since it has been treated to remove any toxins as part of the process used to turn it into flour.
In Latin American cuisine, the flour is often used as a crumbing for fried food and as a constituent in cakes and breads. It may be used alone or mixed with other ingredients, depending on the taste of the cook, so people who are traveling in Latin America should not assume that something made with this flour is inherently gluten free.
Cooks who have never worked with tapioca flour before may want to use recipes that are specifically designed for this flour to allow them to grow accustomed to it. Once a cook is familiar with the way in which the flour behaves as it is used, he can experiment with substitutions and recipe alterations to suit his specific needs. Like all flours, tapioca can go bad if stored improperly; cooks should keep it in a sealed container in a cool dry place and try to use it within six months. The flour can also be frozen to last longer.
Substitutes for Tapioca Flour
- Among the common substitutes for tapioca is cornflour. You should use half as much cornflour as you would tapioca. This is a common thickening agent and readily available. The downsides are that it does not dissolve as easily as tapioca, and it will separate if frozen.
- Arrowroot is another of the more common substitutes for tapioca. It is better in some dishes than cornflour since it has a neutral flavour. Another advantage is that it freezes well. It is more expensive than other options, though, and cannot be mixed with dairy products.
- Less common substitutes for tapioca include kudzu powder, lotus root flour, and potato starch. Kudzu powder is very expensive because it has purported medicinal properties. It comes in chunks which must be crushed into a powder and mixed with water. Lotus root flour is gluten free, so it is good for people with restrictive diets. Potato starch is also gluten free, but must not be boiled.