Arrowroot powder and tapioca flour are both popular gluten-free thickeners used in cooking and baking. While they are similar in some ways and can be used interchangeably in certain recipes, there are important differences between them that impact how they perform in recipes.
What is Arrowroot Powder?
The arrowroot plant is native to tropical regions of South America, particularly the West Indies. It produces starch-rich tubers similar to potatoes or yams.
To make arrowroot powder, the tubers are first washed and cleaned. Then the outer layers are removed until the starchy interior is exposed. This interior pulp is washed and drained several times to extract the starch. Finally, the starchy sediment is dried and ground into a fine, velvety powder.
Arrowroot powder has been used for centuries by indigenous South American cultures as a nutrient-dense food source. Today it remains a popular ingredient around the world due to its versatility as a thickener as well as its nutritional benefits.
Key Takeaway: Arrowroot powder is a fine, white starch extracted from the roots of the arrowroot plant native to South America.
What is Tapioca Flour?
Tapioca flour, sometimes called tapioca starch, is extracted from the cassava root. Cassava is a tuberous, potato-like root native to South America but now grown throughout Africa, Asia and the Caribbean as well.
There are two main types of cassava cultivars: sweet and bitter. Sweet cassava has lower levels of toxins and cyanide and can be consumed after simply cooking. Bitter cassava contains higher levels of toxins and requires extensive processing before it is safe for human consumption.
To make tapioca flour, the cassava root is peeled, washed and then grated to extract the starchy pulp. This pulp is repeatedly rinsed and strained to separate out the starch. The starchy sediment is then dried and ground into a fine, white powder. This powder is tapioca flour.
The flour may be further processed into spherical pearls known as tapioca pearls—a common ingredient in bubble teas and Asian desserts.
Like arrowroot, tapioca has a long history of use by indigenous South American cultures. Tapioca flour adds binding, thickening and glossy texture to gluten-free baked goods, sauces, pies and more.
Key Takeaway: Tapioca flour is extracted from the starchy pulp of the cassava root and ground into a fine, white powder.
Both arrowroot powder and tapioca flour are composed almost entirely of carbohydrates in the form of starch. They contain minimal fats, protein, vitamins or minerals.
However, arrowroot powder contains roughly twice as much fiber as tapioca flour. Arrowroot also contains slightly more protein and fat, and trace amounts of iron, potassium and magnesium.
Overall, the nutritional profiles of both ingredients are quite similar. The main distinction is the higher fiber content in arrowroot powder.
Here is a nutritional comparison of equal 100g servings of each:
|Nutrient||Arrowroot Powder||Tapioca Flour|
|Iron||11% DV||1% DV|
|Potassium||5% DV||1% DV|
|Magnesium||3% DV||1% DV|
The main use of both arrowroot powder and tapioca flour is as gluten-free thickening agents. They can add body and texture to sauces, stews, gravies, pies, puddings and more.
Both ingredients thicken through a process called gelatinization. When the starches are heated in liquid, the granules absorb water and swell. This increases viscosity and gives the liquid a thicker, gel-like texture.
However, there are a few key differences between how arrowroot and tapioca perform as thickeners:
- Reaction to acids - Arrowroot holds up well in acidic liquids like fruit pie fillings or salad dressings. Tapioca starch begins to break down in high acidity.
- Reaction to freezing - Arrowroot maintains a consistent texture when frozen and thawed. Tapioca can become spongy or separate from liquids when frozen.
- Reaction to heat - Arrowroot starts to degrade when cooked too long or at high heats. Tapioca remains stable even with prolonged cooking times.
- Reaction to dairy - Arrowroot turns slimy in dairy-based liquids. Tapioca works well in milk- or cream-based recipes.
Taste and Texture
Arrowroot powder and tapioca flour are both neutral in taste and odor. This makes them ideal thickeners that won’t interfere with the flavors of your dish.
However, they do differ slightly in texture:
- Arrowroot - Produces a smooth, glossy texture. Can have a slimy mouthfeel, especially in dairy recipes.
- Tapioca - Makes for a fine grain, somewhat pearlescent appearance. Has a subtle chewiness when fully hydrated.
Arrowroot is excellent for achieving velvety, glossy sauces, glazes and fillings. Tapioca lends a silkier texture with a subtle bite, excellent for fruit pie fillings.
Choosing the right thickener for your recipe depends on the ingredients and preparation methods. Here are some guidelines:
- Fruit pies, cobblers, crisps - Arrowroot works well for clear, glossy fruit fillings. It holds up to the acidity of berries, citrus, apples, etc.
- Cream-based sauces, puddings - Tapioca works best in dairy as arrowroot makes these slimy. Tapioca adds silkiness and sheen.
- Soups, stews, gravies - Tapioca stands up to prolonged simmering better than arrowroot. It won't degrade.
- Glazes, salad dressings - Arrowroot is ideal for acidic glazes and vinaigrettes. It won't break down.
- Freezer foods - Arrowroot maintains consistent thickening during freezing and thawing. Useful for casseroles, ice creams, etc.
- Baked goods - Both work well combined with other flours in cookies, muffins, breads, etc. Arrowroot adds more fiber.
Substituting Tapioca for Arrowroot (and Vice Versa)
Arrowroot powder and tapioca flour can generally be swapped 1:1 in recipes. However, a few adjustments may be needed:
- Tapioca provides more thickening power by volume than arrowroot. You may need 10-20% more arrowroot to achieve the same consistency.
- Adjust cooking times since arrowroot breaks down faster. Add arrowroot at the end of cooking.
- Arrowroot has more fiber, so using tapioca can change the texture slightly in baked goods.
- Avoid using tapioca as a swap in acidic ingredients as it loses potency.
Ideally, stick to the recommended thickener in a recipe formulation. But in a pinch, you can sub these with the above considerations in mind.
Key Takeaway: You can generally substitute arrowroot powder and tapioca flour 1:1 but may need to adjust amounts, timing or texture.
Is arrowroot or tapioca healthier?
Neither ingredient is an especially significant source of nutrients. Arrowroot contains a bit more fiber and minerals, but not enough to make a big nutrition impact. Both are fine options in moderation.
Can you use corn starch instead?
Corn starch is another popular gluten-free thickener. It can be substituted for arrowroot or tapioca in most recipes as well. However, it does not hold up to freezing as well and may change textures slightly.
Is cassava flour the same as tapioca?
Cassava flour is made from the whole cassava root, while tapioca only contains the starchy pulp. Cassava flour retains more fiber, protein and nutrients compared to processed tapioca flour. They cannot be used interchangeably.
Which is better for pie fillings?
Arrowroot and tapioca both work well in fruit pie fillings. Arrowroot may provide a slightly shinier, smoother texture. But both create pleasant results.
Can you use arrowroot or tapioca to bread or fry foods?
Neither starch contains the gluten needed to properly coat and adhere to foods for frying and breading. Opt for flours like almond, coconut or cassava instead.
While arrowroot powder and tapioca flour share some similarities and can be used interchangeably as thickeners in many recipes, they have distinct characteristics that make each better suited for certain applications.
Understanding how arrowroot differs from tapioca in its reaction to heat, acids, dairy and freezing allows you to make informed choices for your recipes. Taking into account texture and fiber differences is also useful when swapping the starches.
Both arrowroot powder and tapioca flour are tremendously useful gluten-free ingredients that deserve a place in any well-stocked pantry. Adding them to your culinary repertoire will allow you to quickly thicken and enhance the texture of all kinds of delicious creations.