Your Guide to Cooking with Cassava Flour and Meal
They’re your tickets to amazing gluten-free baking.
When it comes to gluten-free baking, it may sometimes feel as if a new type of flour or starch makes an appearance every year or so as the new gluten-free replacement for wheat flour. Starches and flours derived from the cassava root often find their way into discussions on how to replicate the chewiness of gluten without actually using it. However, there is often some confusion as to what cassava-derived products actually are and how they are used. A lot of the confusion has to do with naming. Is what you buy at your grocery store a flour, a starch or a meal, and most importantly, how do you use it? We break down what cassava flour is, what to look out for, how you can incorporate it into your cooking and how it differs from other cassava products.
What Is Cassava?
Cassava is a root vegetable and a staple food for many throughout Latin America, Africa and Asia. It is a long, woody root that originates from South America and the Caribbean where native peoples used it to extract starches, grate into meals and prepare breads and other staple foods. When Europeans – particularly the Portuguese – invaded the Americas, they adopted the root into their own cooking, fusing it with European and African techniques to form new dishes. As well, they took cassava roots to colonies in Africa and Asia.
Cassava goes by many names, including yucca, manioc and tapioca. From this root, we get tapioca pudding along with the chewy pearls you find in bubble tea. Fresh cassava root is available at many Caribbean, Latin American and African groceries. It is typically boiled or fried and has a very dense, starchy texture with a slight chewiness. Please note, however, that cassava root is poisonous if it is not cooked or processed.
So, What Is Cassava Flour? Or Is It Cassava Meal?
Cassava flour is simply ground up cassava root that has been processed (usually washed several times) to rid it of toxins and then dried. Depending on how coarsely the cassava root is ground, it can be either a flour or a meal. Flours typically are finely ground (think of wheat flour), while meals are usually more coarsely ground like cornmeal. But both get their starts from ground cassava root.
Cassava flour can be used similarly to other types of flours to make cakes, breads, pancakes, tortillas or any other type of preparation you’d typically use wheat flour to make. Cassava meal, on the other hand, is often used to make traditional Latin American and West African preparations. For instance, a popular side dish in Brazil is seasoned toasted cassava meal called farofa. In Nigeria and Ghana, sour fermented cassava meal called garri is used to make a variety of fufu that is eaten with particular stews and soups.
Is Cassava Flour Different From Tapioca Starch?
Cassava flour and tapioca starch are two very different ingredients, even though they come from the same source. A good comparison is the difference between cornstarch and cornmeal. Tapioca starch is extracted from the cassava root, just like cornstarch is extracted from corn. It doesn’t include any of the fiber that’s found in cassava. You can read more about tapioca starch and its uses here.
Cassava flour, on the other hand, is made from the whole root, which is peeled before grinding. It includes some fiber and other elements found in cassava roots. Tapioca starch is just the isolated starch and is like a simple, pure carbohydrate.
Browsing grocery aisles can get a little confusing. On top of the many names manufacturers may use for cassava (manioc, tapioca, yucca), some label their products as cassava or tapioca flour when they mean tapioca starch, or vice versa. You can usually tell if you’re dealing with cassava (or tapioca) flour versus starch by taking a look at the nutrition facts on the back of the packaging. The flour will contain more fiber while the starch will contain practically no fiber per serving. When looking at a recipe and trying to figure out which ingredient you need to use, keep in mind that tapioca has traditionally been used to refer to the starch, while cassava was used to refer to the flour.
How to Use Cassava Flour and Cassava Meal
According to many sources, cassava flour is the closest naturally gluten-free and grain-free alternative to wheat flour. It has a neutral flavor and is powdery, unlike many other grain and nut flours that have strong flavors and gritty textures. As well, cassava flour gives baked goods a stretchy, chewy texture that replicates the chewiness of gluten.
Some bakers insist that cassava flour is a cup-for-cup replacement for white wheat flour. However, this may not be the case for all recipes. It’s best to start with some tried-and-true cassava flour recipes to get the hang of how this ingredient works before you start making substitutions in wheat flour recipes.
These West African gluten-free banana fritters get their crispy coating from a dredge in cassava flour. They are a perfect addition to a fruit platter and go great with hot coffee.
This is an adaptation of a traditional Haitian breakfast porridge called labouyi. This version consists of a combination of cornmeal and cassava flour, which gives it a silky texture.
Cassava meal is much coarser than cassava flour and can look like breadcrumbs, depending on the variety that you purchase. Cassava meal makes an excellent gluten- and grain-free breading for anything from onion rings to chicken parmesan. Unlike bread crumbs or other types of breading, however, cassava meal doesn’t get soggy. In fact, you can often reheat something coated with cassava meal in the microwave and still have a mostly crunchy crust. Cassava meal also makes a pleasantly crunchy topping for casseroles, crisps and crumbles. You don’t really need a recipe to use cassava meal as a topping or breading. Simply use it as you would breadcrumbs.
Buying and Storing Cassava Flour and Cassava Meal
You can buy cassava flour at many natural, health and organic stores. You’ll find it easier to distinguish between tapioca starch and cassava flour in such markets. Remember that some manufacturers may label their products as tapioca flour instead of cassava flour, and others may label their tapioca starch as flour. Always read the ingredients list and check the nutrition facts to be certain. The flour (whether labeled cassava or tapioca) will have a higher fiber content than the starch.
Things may get trickier if you try to source cassava flour at international markets, as different countries may label their products differently. For instance, farinha de mandioca is a popular Brazilian product that literally translates to cassava flour. However, it is actually a cassava meal. Cassava meals are easier to come by at international markets as they feature in many traditional cuisines. However, be aware that some cassava products may go through additional processing, such as fermentation or oxidation, to alter their tastes. This is common in West African cuisines with products such as garri and amala. While these products have deliciously nuanced flavors and textures, they may not make the best gluten-free substitutes in your recipes.
Cassava flour and meal can be easily stored in your pantry or cupboard as you would any other type of grain, meal or flour. Keep it in an airtight container away from light, heat and humidity. While cassava flours and meals can last almost indefinitely if stored correctly, you should replace your stash after about a year.