Tapioca Flour: What is it really?

Ever since I tried Tapioca (a type of pancake made from tapioca flour, typically found in the north of Brazil) I have been constantly thinking about tapioca flour. In Brazil there is not just one type of tapioca flour, instead there seems to be a gazillion different types (well that isn’t quite true, but it seems that way to me) and each one is used for making a specific dish or to suit different taste buds. Recently I have been thinking more about the advantages of using tapioca flour, one being that it is GLUTEN FREE, and how fun it is to bake with. The part that I like best is that tapioca flour becomes gooey (if you have tried pão de queijo you know what I mean). So, before I dive into tons of recipes that take tapioca flour I’m going to tell you a little bit about what it is and the different flours that you can find in Brazil.

Sagu or tapioca pearls image from www.wikinoticia.com/

Sagu or tapioca pearls
image from http://www.wikinoticia.com/

Tapioca flour, or manioc flour, is made from a woody shrub known as cassava, manioc, or yuca; a native shrub of South America. In Brazil, the cassava plant and the root that is commonly eaten is called “mandioca”, while the starch is called “tapioca”! The name tapioca is derived from the word tipi’oka which is the name for this starch in the Tupi language that was spoken by the natives when the Portuguese first arrived in the Northeast of Brazil. The Tupi word, tipi’oka, refers to the process by which the starch is made edible. The word has been adopted and is now used to refer to the flour in the northeast of the country. In the north and central west it is more commonly referred to as mandioca, and in the southeast and south as aipim.

Polvilho Doce image from www.mysupermarket.co.uk

Polvilho Doce
image from http://www.mysupermarket.co.uk

As I learned today from my mother-in-law and husband, tapioca flour is the primary flour that is used for baking in the northern areas of Brazil. Due to an inability to grow wheat, tapioca has been adopted as the primary flour. Breads, cakes, buns, and pancakes are all made with tapioca flour. I haven’t tried tapioca bread or cake yet, but I know that I will have to.

Brazilians use two types of tapioca flour: a fine flour that is used in cakes and cookies, and a course flour that is used for frying. Obviously, this is not where the story ends. Yes, there are two main types of tapioca flour, but the tree keeps on branching out. The fine flour, referred to as “polvilho” in Brazil has two different types, a sweet and a sour. The course flour, referred to as “farinha de mandioca” also has various types! Let me start by explaining a little bit more about “polivilho”!

Polvilho Azedo

Polvilho Azedo
image from http://www.produtosbrasileiros.co.uk

Polvilho – This is the fine-white tapioca flour. This is the basic tapioca flour you will find. In Brazil there are two different types, the sweet and the sour. So, what is the difference? Well basically one flour is more sour and the other is more sweet. Tasting them side-by-side you can really taste the difference. “Polvilho Doce”, the sweet tapioca flour is more commonly used for baking cakes or cookies. If you are baking anything sweet you will probably want to go with the sweet tapioca flour! “Polvilho Azedo” is fermented cassava pulp that is then made into flour. This flour is sour and is used in recipes like pão de queijo. More commonly used in savory recipes, the sour tapioca flour has a stronger flavor!

Farinha de Mandioca

Farinha de Mandioca
image from http://www.ibahia.com

Farinha de Mandioca – This is the course manioc flour that is used for frying and is commonly used in the side dish farofa (farinha de mandioca fried with butter, onions, bacon/jerked beef, and parsley). I still have no idea how many different varieties of this flour there are in Brazil, but it seems like a lot. Some flours are very course, others toasted for a more nutty flavor, and others have large flakes. Generally it is up to the preference of those cooking or eating the dishes made with farinha de mandioca. They all do the same thing, they just have slightly different textures and flavors!

Besides the tapioca flour you find in Brazil, Brazilians are also very fond of “sagu” or what is actually known in the USA as tapioca: the tapioca pearls. A delicious dessert “sagu” is usually made with grape juice, but you can find almost any flavor.

If you do not live in Brazil it is likely that you will not have access to the endless variety of tapioca flours that you can find here. Instead, you will be able to find the basic tapioca flour, this is probably the “polvilho doce” that we find in Brazil, but can really be used for any type of baking (pão de queijo made with polvilho doce is still a bite of heaven). Finding the “farinha de mandioca” will be much more of a challenge. I have seen it in some supermarkets in the international section, but this was only in the Boston area where there is a large Brazilian population. (Take a look at my links for ordering Brazilian Food online, there are some great places to buy farinha de mandioca!)

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31 thoughts on “Tapioca Flour: What is it really?

  1. Super interesting! Thank you so much for demystifying this for me, I’ve been wondering what was the difference between all this kinds of manioc flour and the different names and uses they have in Brazil… Now, can you do the same about the different CORN products, please? :mrgreen:

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    • It can definitely be confusing. After I posted this morning I had a conversation with someone from the north of Brazil and she told me about other manioc flours that I had never heard of…an update will definitely be needed! Oh corn, yup another story. Give me some time and I will try to demystify corn for you:)

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  2. Hello! I’m looking forward to seeing the recipes you mention. In particular I have grown to love tapioca (the pancake/crepe things) but haven’t worked out exactly what you need to do to the flour to make it ready for the pan. As far as I understand, it needs to be soaked/hydrated and then pushed through a sieve – is that right? Last time I tried, I ended up with a gelatinous disaster! Hoping you can put me on the right track 🙂

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    • Hi Tom. Yes, you basically need to hydrate the flour in order to prepare the tapioca flour for the ‘pancake’. You do not want to add too much water as this will result in a disaster! I am not 100% sure about the ratio of water to flour, but will let you know ASAP! Leave it in the fridge to cool down and then press through the sieve. If the flour does not resemble breadcrumbs, you have used too much water. Leave the flour in the fridge! I hope this helps. I will make sure to get a proper recipe up soon!

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  3. Hi Saskia. In my area, Sao Paulo, we have slightly different use of the words you just described. Tapioca flour is not flour, but a starch, even though the American import companies will label it as such, found for sale at Asian stores. Brazilians in California used to buy Thai brands to make “pão de queijo”. We call tapioca either the “goma” (fresh starch) or the pancake also known as “biju”. We don´t call tapioca the dry starch we use to make “páo de queijo”, but “polvilho de mandioca”, which is nothing but the starch left sundried. It can be “polvilho doce” or “polvilho azedo”, which starch was left fermenting for 5 days before extracting the “goma”.Farinha is a product of a slightly different process. The manioc roots can be left fermenting in a process called “puba” or can be used fresh. The root is grated, the juice pressed away, and the coarse final product dried in the sun is called “farinha de mandioca”, which has less starch than “polvilho”. Polvilho, goma, tapioca, amido de mandioca, fecula de mandioca, or sagu are the same thing, just with different degrees of humidity or texture. They are high in carbohidrate (just like pure sugar) and zero fibers. Farinha is a different product, with slightly less carbohidrate, and contains fibers.
    Love to read your posts, and I would like to hear more about your organic farming and country living adventures.

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    • Livelifebrazil, thank you for explaining things a little bit more, I am still learning all of this as there are so many different terms used!

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  4. Oh my goodness, my lightbulb just switched on! I have always wondered why tapioca flour is called manioc starch, which sounds like “mandioca”. BECAUSE THEY ARE THE SAME THING. I have some sitting in my cupboard to make pao de queijo and you have inspired to get off my butt and DO IT. 🙂

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  9. Thank you for clarifying all that. I have been trying to get the one you can make “pancakes”. I saw on you tube and you put the “goma de tapioca” directly on the pan. I’m not able to find it on the supermaket. I got the tapioca flour and had to mix with with water and egg. It come out ok. But would love to try the right one.

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  10. Hi! Thank you for explaining, Ive been googling and googling… and here it is, all I need to know in one article! (oh dear, shoulnt have read the comments, now I am confused again :D) 🙂 However, Im desperately looking for a cake recipe using ‘manioca’ = tapioca = cassava FLOUR (looks like wheat flour not like corn starch). (An almost-two-year-old in need of a bday cake but google low protein / PKU baking – now thats a challenge if I ever seen one 😦 ). Do you have any to share? Or even a names of cake would do! Thank you very much! 🙂

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  13. Wait – so which flour type is used for tapioca pancakes? My girlfriend is from Joao Pessoa and we brought a bag of the flour back with us, but when we hydrated it she said we had to do the whole bag at once but that, once hard after the hydration it can sit in the fridge for up to 2 weeks or more (it gets slowly less gelatinous in the pan as time goes on). But I’m not sure which type to buy now. I showed her pictures of the Povilho and she said that as for other things, that crepe flour was different. any thoughts?

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    • Hey JH!
      The ready flour used for tapioca pancakes is called “goma de tapioca”. This is a hydrated tapioca flour or what we call in brazil ‘polivilho azedo’. Goma de tapioca you can most likely find at any store that sells brazilian foods. If you can’t find the ‘goma de tapioca’ buy a bag of ‘polivilho azedo’ and hydrate it at home. Be sure not to put too much water in. Once hydrated put the flour through a sieve, this will be a little laborous, and then you can store it in the fridge for up to 2 weeks! You can store for longer, but the pancakes will become much harder, but, still perfectly edible and tasty. Good luck!

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  14. There is a tricky thing about good farinha. I remember always having farinha at the table when growing up, we would sprinkle a little over our food, it is really tasty and goes really well on your feijão de caldo. Good farinha needs a little starch. People say farinha without polvilho has been overly washed and is not good. I remember my father would bake farinha he had just bought because it was not the way he liked, then it would get darker and crisp. Yummy. I’m from Goiás.

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  15. Pingback: Revisiting Manioc (yuca or cassava) Flours | A Taste of Brazil

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