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What Is Tapioca Flour?

By E. Starr
Updated May 17, 2024
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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.

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Discussion Comments

By bagley79 — On Sep 19, 2011

I have a small bag of tapioca flour, but don't use it very often. Most of the things I use it for don't require a lot of it at one time. I don't use this flour for baking bread or making cookies where you would use cups at a time.

The time I have done some experimenting, I find it works best if I combine it with other flours for the best flavor and texture.

Most of the time I use the tapioca starch for thickening soup. I usually store it in the freezer so it is always fresh and this also keeps the bugs out of it.

By honeybees — On Sep 19, 2011

Since my husband started on a gluten free diet, it has been a challenge to find the right substitutions for some things.

I like to use tapioca flour as a thickener for fruit that is used in fresh pies. It works very similar to corn starch. This flour has a slightly sweet taste to it which is a perfect complement to the fruit.

I have been able to find tapioca flour in the health food section of my local grocery store.

By ysmina — On Sep 18, 2011

@manykitties2-- Same here. I've made different things with tapioca flour in it- like dumplings, pastries and even waffles, but it was not my main flour.

I usually use wheat flour or rice four and add a little bit of tapioca flour for the right consistency and texture. I haven't used it as the main flour in anything so far. I consider it as a side ingredient, much like baking powder or starch.

By serenesurface — On Sep 18, 2011

I think that cassava plant is found in many places in Asia and it is used a lot for cooking and even medicinal purposes.

My sister-in-law is from China and she uses tapioca flour a lot to make desserts. There is one which is called kuih, I believe. It is sort of like stiff pudding made from tapioca flour, mung beans, sugar and coconut milk. It's very good.

I think tapioca flour can be used for any gelatinous type dessert or food. It seems to make foods more uniform and sturdy.

By manykitties2 — On Sep 17, 2011

@Mae82 - It definitely sounds like your sister did a straight substitution using tapioca flour, and from my own experience with making gluten free bread, that is probably one of the worst things you can do. When I bake anything with tapioca flour I combine it with potato starch.

While tapioca flour is good, I also like potato flour as well. It seems to me that its flavor is also neutral, but it has more nutritional value. Potato flour is a bit more expensive than tapioca flour at the health food store I go to, but I figure it is worth the extra investment because it just works more easily.

By Mae82 — On Sep 17, 2011

My sister started using tapioca flour as a baking ingredient because it is wheat free. Her gluten free diet called for a lot of changed to be made and she was happy to start substituting tapioca flour for what she had been using before.

Unfortunately, when she was making a cake the use of the tapioca flour made the texture of her mix really hard to pour properly. She ended up having to throw her cake out because it looked terrible. After reading this article I am pretty sure she did a straight substitute for her regular flour instead of mixing it, which is where everything went wrong.

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