Tapioca is less used in American kitchens than flour and cornstarch, the two workhorse thickeners we grew up with. It is mostly seen as the gently chewy spheres in tapioca pudding, or the larger pearls in bubble tea and similar beverages. However, both quick-cooking tapioca and tapioca flour have many more uses for a savvy, time-conscious cook.
Tapioca starch is processed from cassava, a staple root crop of the world’s tropical countries. The roots are shredded and cooked, and the starch is extracted and refined from the cooking water. The pure starch, known as tapioca flour, is a powerful thickener but becomes stringy if overcooked or stirred too frequently. To counter that tendency, manufacturers process the starch into small balls, which are par-cooked by steaming. When these balls are added to a pudding or pie filling, they provide both thickening power and balls of sweet, chewy gel as a contrasting texture.
Tapioca flour is very neutral, so it can be used in dishes with delicate flavors. It thickens at a lower temperature than most starches, as little as 126 degrees Fahrenheit, so it’s ideal for use with delicate ingredients that won’t stand up to boiling. It’s also useful as a last-minute fix for a sauce that hasn’t thickened properly. Tapioca flour is superior to cornstarch for those who cook and bake ahead because sauces and pie fillings will maintain their texture when frozen and thawed. Cornstarch has an unfortunate tendency to “bleed” moisture when thawed, and its consistency suffers.
Quick-cooking tapioca is a form of tapioca “pearls” that is par-cooked a second time, cooking the starches almost completely. The pearls quickly absorb enough of their cooking liquid to rehydrate, thickening the liquid in the process. Quick tapioca is primarily cooked in sweetened milk to make tapioca pudding, but some recipes also call for it in pie filling. It is an effective thickener, though some object to the chewy pearls in their pie. The tapioca can be powdered in a spice mill or blender to make it more unobtrusive, or tapioca flour can be used instead.
Tapioca pudding requires no eggs for thickening, and if milk is used rather than cream it is low in fat. Standard recipes call for milk or cream, but there is no reason to limit your choices. Make kid-friendly versions with fruit juice or brightly-colored tapioca pearls.For a sophisticated adult dessert, use espresso as your cooking liquid. Vanilla-flavored tapioca pudding pairs well with most fruits, and can be layered in dessert dishes for visual appeal. The extra-large tapioca pearls used in bubble tea are available in Asian groceries, and can be prepared at home for use with any favorite beverage.
Can You Reheat Tapioca?
The term “tapioca” refers to a type of starch extracted from the root of the cassava plant. Most U.S. retailers sell flour, pearl and instant tapioca, but Asian grocers sometimes sell tapioca straws and other unusual varieties. This versatile starch thickens desserts and sauces and is an important ingredient in some beverages. Tapioca starch resists acids, produces a high gloss and withstands freezing and reheating, but it can change the texture of a dish in an unexpected manner.
Better the Next Day
Tapioca pudding is a dairy-based European and American dessert that uses small or instant tapioca pearls. You can serve it warm or cold, but use care when reheating it. Warm up tapioca pudding in the microwave, over a double boiler or in the oven. Avoid re-cooking it over direct heat, however, since it can cause the pudding to stick, leaving shreds of dark, overcooked material in your dessert. If you reheat it in the oven, take advantage of its crisping ability by adding a little sugar and cinnamon to the top of your pudding. The addition creates a warm, crisp topping and prevents skin from forming.
Thicken Your Pie
Instant tapioca pearls and tapioca “flour” make excellent thickeners for fruit pies, especially if you plan to freeze the pie to serve later. Unlike cornstarch, which tends to separate when chilled and reheated, tapioca maintains a glossy surface and attractive texture at all temperatures, according to The Splendid Table. Pies made with tapioca thickeners sometimes thin a little on reheating.
“Boba” Bubble Teas
You can cook large traditional tapioca pearls in sugar syrup to create homemade bubble teas. They work best if you use them right away, but storing them in sugar syrup can extend their shelf life to a few days. If your boba begin to harden, reheat them in their syrup using a microwave or saucepan, but don’t overcook them. Long cooking can make this kind of tapioca lose its shape and form a pudding.
The high gloss of tapioca makes it a second choice for most savory sauces, but some cooks use it when they intend to freeze and thaw the sauce. You can reheat tapioca-based sauces on the stove or in the microwave. They are usually thickest when they are very hot, thinning a little at serving temperatures. Tapioca starch thickens very quickly, however. If your reheated sauces end up runnier than expected, simply mix in a thin paste of tapioca flour and water and continue to heat until you reach the desired consistency.
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