What is yuca?
Yuca- another name for cassava- is a starchy tuber somewhat similar to a potato. It is a high calorie, high protein and high carbohydrate source of sustenance across much of South America, Africa and Asia. You may have run across cassava in American grocery stores sold as tapioca or milled down into gluten-free cassava flour.
Let me also clarify what yuca isn’t: yuca is not the same as yucca, the desert plant that grows in the southwestern United States. They’re not even related. Isn’t that obnoxious? Yucca of the Mojave and Sonoran deserts is a largely ornamental plant with a few practical uses. You could, in theory, eat the root, but almost all of the time if you’re seeing “yucca” at your grocery store it’s a typo; what you’re really getting is “yuca”.
Where can I find yuca and how do I select the best roots?
Hispanic markets are the most consistent places to find yuca in my experience. However, depending on your location, many major grocery stores sell it as well. Although it is grown throughout the year, here in Colorado I have spotty luck finding it- although I can pretty much always find it if I am willing to try more than one grocery chain. Kroger, Safeway, Sprouts, Whole Foods, Publix and Natural Grocers are all examples of places I have been able to find yuca at one time or another.
You can also occasionally find yuca in the freezer aisle, most notably at Publix. This yuca has usually been parboiled and is ready to use right out of the freezer. It’s definitely convenient, but can be expensive. The good news? It’s super simple to prepare and freeze your own cassava root. Read on to find out more about that!
Yuca has a long shelf life, so selecting good roots is easy. Look for pieces that are very hard with a somewhat waxy, rich brown peel. The best pieces are the fatter and more bulbous pieces. The long skinny ones often cook up reedy and tough after boiling. The picture below demonstrates these two pieces side by side. You’ll notice that even though the left one has a richer, darker peel – something I would normally look for – I would actually recommend grabbing the fatter one on the right. I select pieces that are approximately 1.5 lbs. Another thing to examine is the tapered ends of each root. If they are soft and bendy, your cassava roots are old – just like sweet potatoes. They can absolutely still be consumed; they will just be less fresh.
How do you prepare yuca?
The most important thing to know is that the brown peel on the outside is chock full of cyanide! Therefore, you need to be sure to always peel your yuca root before cooking. There is some cyanide in the flesh as well, although this is removed through cooking. There are a variety of ways to cook the toxic chemicals out, although the most common for the home chef is boiling.
Cyanide can be very harmful- even deadly- to both people and pets, so be sure to be mindful of prying hands when disposing of your peels! I do NOT recommend putting the peels down the garbage disposal if you have one; they’re too tough and fibrous and may cause damage. In fact, be sure to use your sturdiest potato peeler to get down under this resilient layer.
Underneath the brown peel, you may find a purplish layer of flesh. Do your best to remove this with your peeler as well. While not dangerous, this layer can separate and become reedy while boiling. It sucks to chew on and keeps your yuca from frying or mashing in consistently tender pieces. Below, you can see a piece of yuca as you would buy it at the store (on the left) and a piece that has been well peeled (on the right).
How do you freeze yuca?
If I am taking the time to deal with one yuca root for a recipe, I almost always prepare one or two more for the freezer. It takes almost no extra time and it freezes beautifully! Here’s what you do:
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
- Using your sturdiest potato peeler, peel each yucca root.
- Remove from water with a slotted spoon and place on a baking sheet. Let them cool all the way down. The pieces should separate naturally from each other and the reedy core. Discard the core.
- After cooling completely, arrange pieces in a single layer on a dry baking sheet and place in the freezer. Rotate occasionally to prevent them from sticking to the pan.
- Once frozen, they can be placed in a large freezer-safe storage bag and stored for several months!
Once your freezer is stocked with prepared yuca, what can you do with it? I often enjoy it in the same way I would potatoes. For breakfast, I fry some as a side dish unto themselves, or as a base for a hash or breakfast burrito. Crispy pieces are also great served along burgers or sandwiches, like French fries. If defrosted, it can be mashed like you would mashed potatoes or cauliflower and served as a side dish. Try with a little Cuban mojo sauce or just a simple gravy!