How to Cook Tapioca Pearls

Everything you need to know about tea bubbles, including their history, how to make them and how to use them.

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Photo by: Clarissa Wei

Clarissa Wei

By Clarissa Wei for Food Network Kitchen

Clarissa Wei is a freelance journalist based in Taipei.

Tapioca pearls are chewy spheres of boiled root starch traditionally eaten with a bit of sugar water, but more commonly now served in a tall glass of icy milk tea. The word tapioca refers to roots of the cassava plant, but these pearls are more often than not a combination of sweet potato starch, cassava starch, sugar and a bit of corn starch. The pearls themselves don’t hold much flavor; instead they’re a textural addendum to a cool, balanced beverage or dessert.

Tapioca pearls are commonplace throughout southeast Asia and East Asia. In the 1980s, they were accidentally put into tea in Taiwan, and quickly became an international hit and beverage icon. Today, bubble tea stores can be found in most major metropolitan cities in the world.

Photo by: Clarissa Wei

Clarissa Wei

Different Types of Tapioca Pearls

Old-school tapioca pearls are clear, translucent and come in small, teardrop-like sizes. They used to be all handmade, put together by combining starch and water and rolling the chalky dough into tiny, individual balls. Over the years, these pearls have gotten as large as marbles, and have been colored an inky black with brown sugar and a bit of food dye. These larger pearls are more commonly referred to as boba.

Today, most tapioca pearls are dried and factory-made with additives, which gives them a much longer shelf life. You can buy them at Asian grocery stores across the world. “Every factory makes different size tapioca pearls,” noted Chiu Si-Chuan, owner of A Chuan Homemade Tapioca, a dessert shop in southern Taiwan that makes tapioca pearls from scratch.

Photo by: Clarissa Wei

Clarissa Wei

How To Cook Tapioca Pearls

To cook dried tapioca pearls, you’ll need to simmer them to rehydrate. The cooking time really depends on how large the pearls are. “For big pearls, you have to cook them at a minimum of 30 minutes to an hour,” advises Chiu. Here’s what to do.

  1. Put them in a pot of boiling water (about a 5:1 ratio of water to pearls). Bring the water to a boil again.

  2. Cover, and then turn the heat down to low. It’s important that the water is still slightly bubbling.

  3. Remove the lid and stir often so that the pearls don’t stick to one another.

  4. The balls are ready when they’re completely translucent with a small white dot in the middle. A finished tapioca pearl should be slightly chewy with a bit of resistance and not at all mushy.

  5. When they’re done, strain, and cool them down with some crushed ice or ice water.

  6. Put them in warm sugar water so that they don’t stick to one another. For the sugar water, Chiu recommends mixing together a combination of brown sugar and turbinado sugar in hot water. Serve immediately or within one day. Cooked tapioca pearls have a short shelf life of only a day or two.

Photo by: Clarissa Wei

Clarissa Wei

Uses For Tapioca Pearls

The most popular way to use tapioca pearls is to serve them in a sweet beverage, like green tea or milk tea. This is where people get creative. Some shops serve boba in whimsical concoctions with cheese foam or in a pale lavender beverage flavored with taro. Others keep it simple, preferring to frame the unique texture of the boba inside a high quality tea.

Bubble Tea

Snag Food Network Kitchen's recipe, which calls for large black tapioca pearls.

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Tapioca pearls can also be used as a complement to any mildly sweet dessert—like a warm coconut soup, or even fresh flan. Smaller tapioca pearls are better for desserts because they don’t interfere too much with the texture of the dish. The larger boba balls tend to be confined to beverages, though some places have started to use them as an eccentric ingredient on top of pizza and cakes.

Photo by: Clarissa Wei

Clarissa Wei

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