Cooks and bakers rely on a number of starch-based products to thicken their soups, sauces, gravies, puddings and pie fillings. The two most familiar choices in the U.S. are wheat flour and cornstarch, which are used widely in both sweet and savory dishes. However, dietary restrictions or culinary considerations sometimes make alternative starches worth a look. One of those is tapioca starch, which has many virtues of its own.
Where Tapioca Comes From
In the harsh climate and thin soil of the world’s tropical regions, starchy, sustaining foods such as potatoes and grains often grow poorly. The staple crop in these regions is manioc, or cassava, a plant producing edible green leaves and large, starch-rich tubers. Some varieties contain lethal amounts of cyanide that must be cooked out, leaving a dry and nutritious flour. When that flour is further processed into a pure starch, the result is tapioca. It’s most commonly sold in small balls, or pearls, and cooked into pudding, but the pure starch is also a potent thickener.
For Restricted Diets
One of the benefits of tapioca starch is its usefulness to cooks and bakers grappling with food allergies or aversions. Wheat flour is problematic for many people, either because they’re intolerant of gluten or because they’re allergic to wheat itself. Corn is also an allergen, and — for those who are wary of such things — almost all corn grown in the U.S. is raised from genetically modified seed. In contrast, tapioca starch is naturally gluten-free and allergies are rare. GMO strains of cassava are under development but are still in their infancy and may take many years to come to market.
From the culinary perspective, tapioca starch has much to recommend it. It thickens at a lower temperature than most other starches, so your fruit pies are less likely to bubble over or have soggy crusts. That low temperature requirement and quick action make it a good choice for correcting a too-thin sauce at the last moment. Compared to flour or cornstarch, tapioca has a neutral flavor, and it gives sauces a beautifully clear, glossy appearance. It freezes and thaws better than cornstarch or flour, making it a superior choice in pies and pastries that are intended for later use. Its only real defect is a texture that’s sometimes stringy, which is why it’s typically sold in pearl form.
If tapioca starch is hard to find in your area, you can simply purchase tapioca pearls — not presweetened pudding mix — and grind them in a blender or spice grinder. The starch’s nutritional values are identical to those of pearl tapioca. As a purified starch, it’s over 88 percent carbohydrates by weight. Since it’s typically used in quantities of a tablespoon or two, this represents only a modest portion of your daily totals.
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