Tapioca brings unrivaled texture to desserts, especially pudding

Alysha Witwicki

Looking at a tapioca pearl, you may think, “What are these made out of?” These white little balls that give tapioca pudding its signature texture actually come from the starch of the cassava root, which is grown in the tropics. After this starch is extracted, it’s formed into little pearls.

Out of the package, they are tiny, hard and definitely not something you would want to eat. But once they’re cooked, they get sticky and gel-like.

In addition to large and small pearls, you can also find “instant” tapioca (which comes in a granulated form) and black pearls (also called “boba”), which is necessary for making those perfect bubbles in bubble tea. 

As far as flavor goes, there really is none. Tapioca tends to take on whatever flavor you are cooking with. But then why use it? It’s all about the texture it produces, which is impossible to find with another ingredient.

Tapioca is most often used in puddings, teas, baked goods and sauces. One cup of dried pearls yields roughly 2 ½ cups cooked pearls. You’ll know they are cooked when they look translucent.

For bubble tea and other dishes, you may have to cook the tapioca pearls separately in water before adding them to your other ingredients. Some tips you should know: Don’t rinse the tapioca before using; you can add them directly to boiling water. You need a lot of water to cook tapioca because the pearls absorb so much liquid. After they’re cooked, you can place them in slightly sugary water to prevent them from sticking together. In a drink like bubble tea, you definitely don’t want your tapioca sticking together.

Instant tapioca is a great thickening agent for pie filling, soups and gravies. And even when it's frozen, tapioca retains its texture, which makes it especially suitable for dishes you know you’ll be freezing right away, like soup or ice cream. And unlike a thickener like flour or cornstarch, tapioca pearls won’t dull the color of your frozen dish at all.

Instant and small pearl tapioca can also be used in savory dishes like vegetable or cream-based soups, dumplings and more.

And, of course, to see tapioca pearls really shine, you can’t forget tapioca pudding. It’s as nostalgic and comforting as rice pudding, yet it’s surprisingly varied. In addition to a classic vanilla pudding, you can also experiment with chocolate, coconut and fruit varieties.

Coconut Tapioca Pudding With Mango And Lime

Coconut Tapioca Pudding with Mango and Lime

½ cup small pearl tapioca

2 ½ cups whole milk

½ vanilla bean, halved lengthwise and seeds scraped

Kosher salt

1 can (14 ounces) unsweetened coconut milk

2 egg yolks

3 T. sugar

2 cups peeled and diced mango

1 T. finely grated lime zest

2 T. fresh lime juice

In a large saucepan, combine tapioca, whole milk, vanilla bean and seeds and a pinch of salt. Bring to a simmer over medium heat and cook, whisking occasionally, until tapioca is translucent and tender, about 20 minutes. Whisk in the coconut milk.

In a small bowl, whisk egg yolks with sugar. Gradually whisk in half the warm tapioca in a steady stream. Continue whisking and pour egg yolk mixture back into saucepan with remaining tapioca. Cook pudding over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until thickened, about 5 minutes. Transfer pudding to a bowl and let cool to room temperature. Discard vanilla bean.

In a medium bowl, combine mango, lime zest and juice. Transfer half to a food processor and puree until smooth. Stir the puree into remaining diced mango.

Divide half the fruit into 4 glasses, top with the tapioca pudding, then top with remaining fruit. Cover puddings and refrigerate about 2 hours, or until chilled, before serving.