Puddings, Pies & Bubble Tea: Tapioca

(Image credit: joannawnuk)

If you think tapioca is only for the 5-and-under crowd, think again. This versatile ingredient is our top pick for thickening pies, and on a hot afternoon, an icy-cold bubble tea hits the spot like nothing else. Not that we’d turn down a bowl of tapioca pudding either. Do you cook with tapioca?

Tapioca comes from the root of the cassava plant, grown in warm, tropical areas. It is a starch that thickens and gels when hydrated with water, and can be found ground into powder, in flakes, or rolled into “pearls.” Tapioca is a gluten-free ingredient with a neutral flavor and little actual nutritional value.

Most of us are familiar with tapioca pearls. These are the chewy little spheres that we loved as kids in pudding form and love even more now as bubble tea. They can range from the size of tiny couscous to nearly as big as marbles.

Given its neutral flavor, tapioca also makes an excellent thickener when ground into a powder. It also stays clear and translucent when heated, so it won’t give your pies and sauces the cloudy, dull color of flour or cornstarch. You can find tapioca already ground into a powder (also sometimes labeled as “flour”) at most Asian grocery stores, or you can do it yourself by grinding pearls in a spice grinder.

Do you ever use tapioca?