What is tapioca flour? Is it the same as tapioca starch? What about cassava flour? We tell you all about it and how to use it in cooking and baking. We also give you the best substitutes for tapioca flour explaining when, why, and how to use each substitute.
What is tapioca flour?
To understand better what you can use as an alternative, I think it is important to know what is actually tapioca flour. Have you heard of cassava or manioca or yuca? It is a plant native in South America, but now also cultivated in West Africa and Asia. Tapioca flour is made from the root of this plant by extracting its starch-content. I found an article that explains very clearly how tapioca flour is manufactured. In short, this is how it goes:
- Cassava root is washed and peeled.
- The peeled root is then ground into a fine pulp.
- This pulp will be mixed with water.
- Then they separate the starch and the fiber via some filtering equipment.
- Next is to dry the starch part.
- Finally, when it is completely dry, they grind it into a fine powder.
Is tapioca flour same as tapioca starch?
Yes, it is the same. Tapioca is a very fine powder-like flour that is actually pure starch, hence the two different names and the misunderstanding. So yes, tapioca flour is tapioca starch. Whichever is on the packaging, you can be sure you are using the correct ingredient. Due to this confusion brands like Bob Red Mill’s* have started labeling their products to contain both names.
Is tapioca flour same as cassava flour?
No, it is not the same. Both flours are made of cassava root. So that much is true. However, the major difference is that tapioca flour is pure 100% starch, while cassava flour has actually some fiber. I found a newspaper article on how cassava flour is manufactured. It starts the same with washing, peeling, and finely chopping the cassava root. However, unlike making tapioca flour where the starch and the fiber is separated, during making cassava flour, the finely chopped root is dried and then milled to flour.
The 3 most important features you need to know
Tapioca starch has 3 very distinct characteristics that you need to know about before deciding what to substitute it with
- Tapioca starch needs to be heated to activate its thickening power. Nothing will happen if you add it to your dish without heating it up next.
- Never add it to a hot liquid directly. If you add it to a boiling or hot sauce, the tapioca starch will be activated before you even have a chance to grab your whisk. Your sauce will be lumpy, which you may not be able to fix. The right way is to mix it with a little cold liquid to get them dissolved (create a slurry) and then add to the hot sauce.
- It can lose its thickening power if it is re-heated again. If you have a soup thickened with tapioca starch which you want to re-heat the next day, it will turn runny again.
4 purposes to use tapioca starch in your kitchen
Using tapioca flour in everyday kitchen is not only popular in South American or African cuisine. As it is also available to buy worldwide, its popularity increased significantly. I use tapioca starch in my kitchen 4 ways depending on what I have in mind.
- Thickener – The number 1 reason you have it in your kitchen is to thicken sauces, stews, soups.
- Pudding base– People also rely on its thickening power to make pudding or custard-like recipes.
- Egg substitute – Tapioca flour is a popular egg substitute in vegan recipes especially for pancakes, crepes, waffles, and such. Or as a binder to veggie patties, burgers, or vegetable balls.
- Gluten-free baking – It is quite popular in gluten-free baking as it helps to raise the starch-content of the gluten-free flour mix to be closer to that of an all-purpose flour.
The best tapioca flour substitutes
We go through each and every alternative explaining why or why not they are similar to tapioca starch. When and how can they be used instead depending on the original recipe and the purpose of tapioca starch there. Here is our list of the 9 best substitutions for tapioca flour:
- Arrowroot starch
- Potato starch
- All-purpose wheat flour
- Gluten-free flours
- Gelatin, Agar agar, Pectin
- Xanthan gum, Guar gum,
- Collagen (like eggs)
- High-starch vegetables
Cornstarch* is a universal substitute as it works in all 4 cases I explained above. It is perfect as #1 thickener (in Vegan Pot Roast, Vegan Stew, or Vegan Onion Gravy), or as #2 pudding base (Vegan Custard Tart, or Vegan Panna Cotta), or as #3 egg substitute (Beetroot Burger, or Mushroom Meatballs) or as #4 gluten-free flour (Gluten-free Pizza Crust)
- Cornstarch is available in almost all stores. It is a widely distributed starch product and cheaper than the others.
- It is a stronger thickener than tapioca starch. The thickening power of starches depends on their amylose-content. Tapioca starch has 15-18%, while corn starch has a relatively high one, 25-30%. If you want to substitute corn starch for tapioca, you need less to reach the same result.
- It needs higher heat to be activated, usually at boiling point. As soon as it thickens, you need to take it off the heat, as over-mixing and over-heating will deflate it and the sauce becomes runny again.
- Cornstarch does not do well with high acidic liquids like tomato, citrus fruit, wine, or vinegar. It can lose its thickening power.
- Tapioca starch turns opaque when heated, while corn starch remains somewhat cloudy.
Arrowroot starch* can also be a good substitution for tapioca flour. It ticks 3 of the 4 boxes: #1 – a thickener, #2 – a pudding base, and #4 – part of a gluten-free flour mix. However, I have never ever seen a vegan recipe where it was used as an egg substitute for pancakes, crepes, and similar dishes.
- Its thickening power is quite close to tapioca starch having 20% amylose-content, while tapioca has 15-18%. It means you can substitute arrowroot for tapioca starch 1:1.
- It also needs lower heat same as tapioca.
- It is also opaque just like tapioca when heated.
- This starch is even less common to find in supermarkets than tapioca starch.
Potato starch* can another substitute for tapioca starch, as they are quite similar to one another. It ticks 3 of the 4 boxes: #1 – a thickener, #2 – a pudding base, and #4 – part of a gluten-free flour mix. However, I have never ever seen a vegan recipe where it was used as an egg substitute for pancakes, crepes, and similar dishes.
- Its thickening power is quite close to tapioca starch having 20% amylose-content, while tapioca has 15-18%. It means you can substitute potato for tapioca starch 1:1.
- It also needs lower heat same as tapioca.
- It is also opaque just like tapioca when heated.
I have to eat gluten-free, but wheat flour aka all-purpose flour has been a good substitute to thicken sauces, soups, or stews before. Sadly, wheat is not gluten-free, so it is not an alternative for someone who has coeliac. It ticks only 2 of the 4 boxes: #1 – a thickener and #3 egg substitute.
- All purposes flour is a go-to thickening agent for those who doesn’t have to eat gluten-free. It is cheap, available in all stores, and easy to work with.
- It has a high 25% amylose-content, so its thickening power is closer to cornstarch than to tapioca starch. If a recipe call for tapioca starch as thickener, you need half of the amount of all-purpose flour.
- It is not really a suitable substitute for tapioca flour when it comes to making puddings, custards or fruit sauces.
- Wheat flour can be used to bind veggies patties, burgers, ball together instead of tapioca starch and eggs.
- It is also not acceptable in a gluten-free diet.
If you need to eat gluten-free, you have an option to thicken sauces with gluten-free flours instead of tapioca starch. We have a List of 90+ Gluten-free Flours, which means there are plenty to choose from. The most common ones are oat flour, rice flour, buckwheat flour, millet flour, and almond flour. It only ticks 2 of the 4 boxes: #1 – a thickener and #4 – gluten-free baking
- If you have a branded GF flour mix, you can use them as a thickener. These flour mixes does have some type of starch in them which helps the substitution easier.
- Out of all stand-alone flours, rice flour would be the easiest, cheapest, and closest thickeners to tapioca starch.
- None of the gluten-free flours are suitable substitutes for tapioca flour when it comes to making puddings, custards or fruit sauces.
- They are also never used as a vegan egg substitute.
Agar agar / Gelatin / Pectin
They are all very powerful gelling agents. Gelatin is an animal-based option, while agar agar* is made of red algae and widely used in vegan recipes. Pectin* comes from fruits. If you want to use them as an alternative to tapioca pudding here are the pros and cons you need to consider. It ticks only 1 of the 4 boxes: #2 – a pudding base.
- They are a suitable alternative for tapioca starch to make puddings or custards or similar dishes. However, they are powerful thickeners, so you need only very small amount.
- What was a pro is also a con. They are too powerful, so they are not really suitable to thicken soups, stews or sauces.
- While making vegan cheese can be challenging, tapioca starch is used to make stretchy gooey cheeses like vegan mozzarella, while agar agar is perfect for sliceable ones like this Pistachio Nut Cheese.
Xanthan gum / Guar gum
They are quite powerful thickening agents. They have gained popularity with gluten-free baking in place of or in combination of other gluten-free flours and starches. Both xanthan gum* and guar gum* tick 2 of the 4 boxes: #1 – a thickener and #4 – part of a gluten-free flour mix.
- The best way to use them as a tapioca flour alternative is in gluten-free baking. As you can’t use all purpose wheat flour, gluten-free flour mixes often use tapioca or corn starch in combination with xanthan gum or guar gum.
- They are too powerful, so they are not really suitable to thicken soups, stews, or sauces.
- They are not commonly available in stores. So you might need to search a bit longer.
- Even though you need small amounts they are sold in larger quantities, so they can be pricey.
Collagen (like eggs)
Eggs are quite a common ingredient to use as a thickening agent. I make Vegan Crepes and Vegan Pancakes as well as Gluten-free Pie Crust and Gluten-free Pop Tarts with tapioca starch to avoid eggs and to enhance the starch content of the gluten-free flour mix. If you don’t need to avoid eggs, they are great alternatives to thicken certain dishes.
- Eggs are commonly used to make pudding and custard-like dishes. They are also used to make veggie patties, burgers, meatballs stick together.
- Eggs are widely available in stores.
- Not allergy-friendly. It is not suitable for people following a vegan or plant-based diet as well as for those who has egg-allergy of any type.
- Eggs is not really suitable to thicken soups, sauces or stews as it is hard to navigate at what heat you make scrambled eggs instead thickening it.
There are some vegetables with high natural starch-content that can help you replace tapioca flour in some cases. They usually tick only 2 of the 4 boxes: #1 – a thickener and #3 – egg substitutes.
- Potatoes – I use them to thicken soups like this Cream of Spinach Soup.
- Sweet potatoes, butternut squash or pumpkin – I use them to make Vegan Chocolate Pudding or Sweet Potato Brownies
- Chickpeas, lentils and beans – You can also thicken soups, stews and sauces with pureed cooked legumes. I use chickpeas to make a thick Hidden Vegetable Sauce. Have you heard of Black Bean Brownies or Chickpea Blondies? You can skip starches or flours all together to make them.
- Tomato paste – It is perfect to thicken tomato-based sauces, stews and soups without any starch
More gluten-free guides
We have been writing more and more guides for specific ingredients that are important in a vegan diet. We explain in details how to prepare them, how to cook with them, what to serve with them. Here are some of the other articles you might be interested in:
- Gluten-free Pantry Guide
- List of 90+ Gluten-free Flours
- What is TVP? 10 TVP recipes to try first
- Is vegan gluten-free? 11 foods to avoid
- Is baking powder gluten-free?