It's not just for bubble tea.


If you're well versed in gluten-free flours and starches, you're probably familiar with tapioca. Otherwise, you may know it as the chewy balls in your boba tea or a common ingredient in pudding. However, tapioca is capable of far more than adding a little buoyancy to desserts. Read on to learn more about tapioca and its uses.

What Is Tapioca?

Tapioca is a gluten-free thickener, gelling agent, and baking ingredient made from yuca, the root of a cassava or manioc tree. Tapioca comes in different forms: The most common dry tapioca products are tapioca flour and pearl tapioca, ranging in pearl size between 1 to 8 millimeters in its uncooked stage. Tapioca is primarily associated with desserts, but it can also be used in savory dishes, as Pao de Queijo (Brazilian cheese bread).

What Is Tapioca Pudding?

Tapioca pudding is a dessert made from small tapioca pearls, also called pudding balls or tapioca balls. The opaque balls turn chewy and rubbery when cooked.

Which Tapioca Balls Are Used in Bubble Tea?

There are countless variations of bubble tea, and it depends on the recipe whether you use small or large tapioca balls, the original white tapioca balls, or one of the many colored or flavored varieties.

Tapioca balls used for bubble tea are often marketed and sold as boba balls, which is the Chinese word for tapioca pearls.

Related: What Is Boba?

Cassava Root
Credit: dorisj / Getty Images

What's the Difference Between Tapioca Starch and Tapioca Flour?

Tapioca starch and tapioca flour are the same. Tapioca flour is often referred to as cassava flour, but the two are distinct: Cassava flour is made from the entire ground root, whereas tapioca flour is made by extracting a starch from the cassava root's wet pulp.

Modified tapioca starch is tapioca starch that has been treated to improve its cooking properties, shelf life, and thickening abilities. This does not necessarily mean that the underlying plant has being genetically modified although that can be the case.

Some manufacturers label tapioca starch as "Tapioca starch dextrin" or "Tapioca dextrin."

What Is Quick-Cooking Tapioca?

Quick-cooking or instant tapioca consists of small precooked tapioca pearls. It acts as a fast thickening agent just like cornstarch or all-purpose flour.

What is Tapioca Syrup?

Tapioca syrup is a sweetener made from naturally fermented tapioca starch.

What Is Tapioca Maltodextrin?

Tapioca maltodextrin is a food additive used by the food industry to increase the volume of dry mixes and frozen foods, and in molecular gastronomy to stabilize fat ingredients in order to transform them into powders.

What's a Good Substitute for Tapioca?

If you want to replace tapioca starch (tapioca flour) as a thickener, use the same amount of all-purpose flour, or half the amount of cornstarch, arrowroot or potato starch. Arrowroot and potato starch are the best gluten-free tapioca starch alternatives.

Is Tapioca Gluten-Free?

Since it comes from the cassava plant rather than a grain, tapioca is totally gluten-free. In fact, tapioca flour is one of the more common substitutes for gluten-free bakers.

Check out our collection of Tapioca Flour Recipes.