How to Cook Tapioca Pearls and Use Them to Make Boba Tea
Everything you need to know about tea bubbles, including their history, how to make them and how to use them.
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.
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.
If you love the boba tea shops popping up and want to try making them at home, these tapioca bubbles will taste better that anything you can buy. They're a labor of love, so when it comes time to roll the little boba, hop on a stool or grab a friend to help you out. You’ll have enough to make 8 glasses of your very own homemade bubble tea.
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.
- Add them to boiling water. Working in a 5:1 ration of water to pearls, add the pearls to a pot of boiling water. Bring the water to a boil again.
- Cover, and then turn the heat down to low. It’s important that the water is still slightly bubbling.
- Simmer, stirring often. Remove the lid and stir often so that the pearls don’t stick to one another. 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.
- Strain and cool the pearls. When they’re done, strain, and cool them down with some crushed ice or ice water.
- Mix the pearls into warm sugar water. 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.
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.
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.
This homemade version of brown sugar milk tea allows you to play with your dream ratio of tea to milk to sweet chewy boba. Also known as tiger milk tea because of the tiger-like streaks of brown sugar syrup on the glass, the delicious drink originates in Taiwan and has grown in popularity, extending all over the United States. In this recipe, the brown sugar tapioca bubbles get a good soak in brown sugar syrup, doubling down on that toasted sugar flavor.
If you’re craving those deliciously chewy and caramelly pops that are seemingly everywhere on social media, look no further. Inspired by brown sugar bubble tea, the Taiwanese ice cream treats are easy to make at home. Our recipe includes instructions for the boba (bubbles) too, since the store-bought pearls used in the drinks are made from tapioca starch, which becomes quite hard when frozen. After trying various options, we found glutinous rice flour yields the ideal texture, even after a stint in the freezer.