Cornstarch and flour are staples in almost every household kitchen, commonly used to thicken gravies, sauces and pie fillings. Another thickener that chefs often use is tapioca in its various forms; its unique properties make it the best choice of thickener for certain foods.
Tapioca, made from the cassava plant, comes in forms varying from powder to large bead-sized granules (tapioca beads are the "bubbles" in bubble tea). The most common form of tapioca found on American grocery shelves comes in pearl-sized granules, often labeled as "instant" or "quick-cooking" tapioca. This inexpensive item, found in the baking aisle, can be ground to a powder at home if the powder form is unavailable.
As a thickener, tapioca has many advantages over both cornstarch and flour -- it does not break down in acidic environments and does not get cloudy. Once cooked and gelled, it does not require refrigeration to hold its shape. Best of all, tapioca produces a crystal-clear jelly-like consistency, making it an ideal thickener for fruit pies, particularly berry pies.
To use tapioca with fruit pie, mix it gently with the fruit and let it sit for 10 to 20 minutes, allowing the fruit's juice begin softening the granules. This is especially important if using pearl tapioca, to help the granules completely dissolve. When baking, wait until the center of the pie is hot and bubbling, to indicate that the thickening action has been thoroughly initiated.
The most important step to ensuring a beautiful, jewel-like pie filling -- and the most difficult step to follow -- is to let the pie rest overnight before serving. Starches re-bond while resting, so your pie will retain its shape while being cut. No more runny filling drowning the pie pan!
Tapioca does not withstand a lot of stirring, so it is not the best thickener for sauces, gravies or anything else made on the stovetop. For these types of dishes, cornstarch or flour is your best bet; use cornstarch when you desire a translucent look and flour for opaque mixtures.
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