I got very interested in tapioca when I developed a new method of making tender wheat meat/ seitan chuck roast using MINUTEŽ Tapioca. This recipe proved so popular that I began looking for alternatives to the expensive and sometimes hard to find brand name instant-type tapioca product. It didn't work to just substitute tapioca flour or small pearl tapioca broken into "Minute" sized bits, I wanted to know why?
I learned that tapioca pearls are a cooked product based on tapioca flour. They are prepared by soaking the flour and cooking to make it palatable, then shaping and drying it as the pearls. MINUTEŽ Tapioca and other instant-type tapiocas are processed further. The pearls are cracked or flaked and cooked, then dried. So, it is actually partially pre-cooked. Comparing regular tapioca to MINUTEŽ tapioca is the same as comparing regular rice to MINUTEŽ rice.
The most popular use of tapioca in the Western world is a milk-based dessert pudding with milk and sugar. In the tropics, it is also popular prepared as a pudding with fruit or fruit juice. In addition, recently there is a world-wide vogue, originating in Taiwan, to use large sugar-soaked cooked tapioca pearls to add texture to tea drinks, such as pearl milk tea or bubble tea.
Tapioca is useful for thickening the juices in fruit pies and for thickening gravies in crockpot dishes where regular gravies tend to breakdown. Instant-type tapioca such as MINUTEŽ Tapioca can be used as a substitute for flour or cornstarch to thicken stews, gravies, soups, pies, etc. As a thickener, if the MINUTEŽ tapioca is allowed to soak approximately 5 minutes in the liquid prior to being heated, it allows the beads to swell and soften and maximizes its thickening quality. At least one other company, Reese, makes an instant-type tapioca that can be subsituted for MINUTEŽ Tapioca in recipes with the same results.
Tapioca flour is a starch extracted from the root of the tropical cassava plant (also called manihot or manioc or yuca) in both the East and the West. This is a tall slender plant, which has poinsettia- type leaves, cultivated in plantation-type settings. It can attain heights of ten to sixteen feet. The root tubers grow in clusters and are tapered in shape, like giant sweet potatoes, twelve to twenty inches long; they sometime weigh as much as thirty pounds. Some species are bitter and others are sweet, and all must be processed to remove toxic compounds before being eaten.
When fully grown, the roots are harvested and sent to modern mills near the plantation. The roots are washed and peeled by tumbling in water sprays, then ground to a fine pulp. The liquid, which now contains the starch, is drained off. To separate and purify it, repeated washings and settlings form the starch into a moist cake. This is further dried and pulverized into a tapioca flour.
To make tapioca pearls, the tapioca flour, which is fine as face powder, is mixed with water to make a dough, which is slowly cooked and stirred. By the end of the precooking process, the tapioca has dried again into so called "flakes". These are reduced in size in hammer mills and dried in warm air before cooling, grinding, and screening to produce uniform granules. Tapioca pearls come in small, large or giant, and instant. 3 / 4 cup pearl tapioca thickens the same as 1 / 2 cup instant-type tapioca.
It is the repeated precooking which makes MINUTEŽ Tapioca so quick and easy to prepare in home kitchens. Other tapioca pearls MUST be soaked before cooking. Let small or giant tapioca pearls soak in water at least two hours or up to ttwo and one half. Check if pearls are squishy on the outside and pasty in the center, which is what you want. Do not pre-soak any longer since pearls tend to get too mushy.
The uncooked tapioca flour is also available in some stores. To thicken mixtures with plain tapioca flour, first make a thin paste by combining it with water, then stir it into a hot liquid. If you can't find tapioca flour, and don't like the small, cooked bits that quick-cooking tapioca leaves in soups, sauces, etc., process quick-cooking tapioca in a blender until powdery. All uncooked tapioca products are best stored tightly sealed to keep in the best condition.
Good tapioca pudding has a smooth, custardy texture with discreet tender pearls. Once tapioca is added to any liquid, don't let the mixture boil or the tapioca may get stringy. Overstirring a tapioca mixture while cooking or cooling also produces a sticky, gelatinous texture.
By the way, to use cracked small pearl tapioca in the seitan, which simmers for 6-8 hours, all I had to do was increase the amount about a third and soak the bits in some of the broth or liquid for about an hour before adding to the recipe.
Cooking and storing tapioca pearls for bubble tea at home
In some parts of the country, the pearls are cooked and soaked in brown sugar syrup instead of white, giving them a tea-colored appearance. Pearl tea drinks are served hot, iced, and frappeed or frozen.
3 oz. dry tapioca large or giant pearls
2 tbsp. sugar or packed brown sugar
Start by soaking the pearls. Mix tapioca pearls and one tablespoon sugar with boiling water in a large bowl. Stir quickly to separate pearls and to dissolve sugar. Let stand at least two hours check texture and let stand up to 30 minutes more. Check if pearls are squishy on the outside and pasty in the center. Do not soak any longer; the cooked pearls will get too mushy.
Drain the soaked pearls. Keep the water that they were soaked in and add remaining sugar to the water you have saved. Boil until the sugar is completely dissolved. Add in soaked pearls and IMMEDIATELY lower heat to medium. Simmer for a few minutes till the centers of the tapioca balls become rather clear. Check for doneness by sampling the balls every so often. When done, cooked tapioca pearls are a bit chewy inside and gooey soft outside.
Drain the cooked pearls and pour cold water over them to stop them from cooking. Refrigerate cooked pearls and use by the next day. Some people store the pearls in water or syrup, but I prefer to just cook them till tender, drain them and store in a plastic zipper bag or container without the water. If they get a bit sticky, gently separate them before using by pouring lukewarm water over the pearls and then draining them.