For newly diagnosed celiac sufferers, adjusting to a gluten-free diet is a major lifestyle change. Gluten-containing grains such as wheat, rye and barley are present in a surprising number of foods, meaning that celiac patients need to become diligent label readers. There are many gluten-free prepared foods on the market, and dedicated cooks and bakers learn to stock their pantries with naturally gluten-free ingredients such as tapioca.
Although some people are allergic to wheat, problems with gluten usually stem from a sensitivity or intolerance. These are adverse reactions that don't stem from an immune system malfunction, as true food allergies do. The best known of these adverse reactions is celiac disease, which causes the body to launch a painful attack on the cilia that line the intestines and absorb nutrients. The only way to alleviate the symptoms is to avoid grains that contain gluten and related proteins.
Gluten-free baking uses a variety of starches and flours to replace forbidden grains such as wheat, rye, spelt and triticale. Wheat and other grains containing gluten are best for many types of baking, and no single gluten-free flour is a direct replacement. Flours and starches without gluten don't make an elastic dough the way that wheat does, so gluten-free baking usually includes gelling agents such as xanthan gum to help improve the texture. Most recipes and mixes include multiple flours to create an acceptable flavor and texture. One common flour replacement is tapioca starch.
Tapioca is a starch refined from the root of cassava, a root crop that serves as a dietary staple throughout the world's tropical regions. The refined starch is usually sold in granules that make jelly-like pearls when cooked. The largest grains make the giant pearls found in bubble tea, while the smallest make the familiar quick-cooking "instant" tapioca, best known under the Minute Tapioca brand. Pure tapioca starch is available in a flour-like consistency, but if you don't use it regularly, it's often better to keep Minute Tapioca on hand for desserts, and grind it when you need to use it for flour.
A blender or spice grinder can turn granules of Minute Tapioca into powdered tapioca starch in seconds. Use the starch in combination with other gluten-free flour substitutes such as potato starch, rice flour, corn flour and arrowroot to create a suitable texture and flavor for each recipe. These flour mixtures can be used for cakes, cookies, pancakes, waffles, breads, biscuits and most other baked goods. Pie fillings thickened with tapioca starch will keep their texture when frozen and thawed, making it a better choice than cornstarch.