You know boba tea has reached peak popularity when Trader Joe’s has instant packets of boba tea in their freezer section. What was once a rare commodity in the US—only found in major cities with large Asian populations (New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles)—has slowly spread across the country. Practically every day a friend of mine texts me excited that they found a local boba place in their city, no longer needing to visit me in San Francisco for their boba tea fix.
But boba tea isn’t hard to make at home! Though there are instant versions (like the Trader Joe’s product) as well as quick-cook tapioca balls, quality boba tea is best made with traditional tapioca balls. This takes a little time (though it’s very low effort) and the result is superior to the quick version. Once you make the tapioca balls, the drink itself is completely customizable.
What Is Boba Tea?
If you’re not familiar with boba tea (also known as bubble tea), it’s a popular Asian drink that often consists of a milky sweet tea and tapioca pearl balls. Invented in Taiwan in the early 1980s, the chewy bouncy tapioca balls are sucked up with a large straw as you drink the tea.
Taiwanese folks love a sort of bouncy firm springy texture in their food, something they call “Q,” which is almost like a Taiwanese version of al dente pasta for Italians. Tapioca balls, along with fishcakes and mochi, are great examples of this “Q” texture. Growing up, when my mom bit into a quality fishcake, she would proclaim “QQ” (double Q!).
Nowadays there are dedicated shops for boba tea and it comes in a variety of flavors. Popular brown sugar milk tea is the one I’m featuring here, but you can find versions at shops made with matcha green tea, Hong Kong-style boba tea with condensed milk, fruit flavors like lychee, mango, strawberry, and endless more. Boba tea shops often have different toppings you can add like grass jelly, sago, pudding, and cheese foam.
Tips for Making Boba
Making basic boba tea consists of four components: strongly brewed tea, milk, tapioca balls, and sweetener. Each are customizable to your taste, but quality tapioca balls are my highest priority.
- Quality tapioca ball texture requires time. Lisa Lin over at Healthy Nibbles and Bits likes to use quick cook 5-minute tapioca balls for her boba tea, but I prefer dried tapioca pearls, which require boiling for 15 to 25 minutes, then resting in the hot water another 20 minutes. This is the most time-consuming part of making quality boba tea. But it’s almost all hands-off time, and you can brew your tea and make your simple syrup while the tapioca balls cook. I can taste the difference between the texture in the quick cook and the dried tapioca balls, but if you’re impatient or less picky about the texture, feel free to use the quick cook kind.
- Make your sweetener. I often make simple syrup as a sweetener because the sugar syrup dissolves quicker in the tea. But you can use maple syrup, honey, or agave nectar if you like. In this recipe, I make a brown sugar simple syrup because I like the molasses flavor, but feel free to make it with white sugar.
- Make your tea. You should brew your tea double-strength because the tea gets diluted by the ice and milk. Traditional classic black tea, like Assam or Ceylon, is often what is used for boba tea, but pick what you like. Early grey is a favorite of mine, and when I want a special treat I’ll reach for lapsang souchong for that bit of smokiness. You can also use a green tea or matcha green tea, white tea, or herbal tisane if you’d like. Because I’m adding sweetener and milk to the tea along with the chewy tapioca balls, I skip using my high-end loose teas for boba tea.
- Choose your milk. I typically go for non-dairy milk like oat milk or almond milk. Any milk will work—if you are using dairy milk, whole milk is typical for its richness. If you want extra creaminess, you can use half-and-half for a richer boba tea. Or simplify the recipe by making a Hong Kong-style boba tea by skipping the sweetener and milk and using sweetened condensed milk instead.
- Boba Straws. If you’re going to make boba, you need a wide large straw to suck the boba balls up! You can find reusable boba straws online. I have these plastic boba straws which are dishwasher safe and BPA-free, but you can also find metal ones if you are avoiding plastic.
How to Store Boba Tea
Boba tea should be enjoyed the day you make it. The tapioca balls should ideally be consumed within an hour of making them. Keep them in the liquid that you boiled them in until you’re ready to drink your boba tea. The liquid will keep them fresh, bouncy, and chewy.
You’ll find that if you make a large batch of the tapioca balls and store them in the fridge they will harden. I’ve had some luck storing leftover boba milk tea in the fridge overnight with plastic wrap over the top, then scooping the hardened and cooled balls out of the liquid and heating them up in the microwave to soften them again. 20 to 30 seconds is usually enough—you don’t want to cook them again, just warm them up and soften them. Once softened, I’ll add them back to the tea. But they do become mushier, with the quality similar to using quick-cook tapioca balls.
That said, you can easily brew the tea and make the simple syrup ahead of time. Let them cool to room temperature and store them both in the fridge in airtight jars or containers. The tea will keep for up to 2 days while the simple syrup will keep for up to 2 weeks.
Icy Cold Drinks!
- Strawberry Italian Soda
- Agua de Jamaica (Hibiscus Iced Tea)
- Cold Brew Coffee
- Ice Chai Latte
- Thai Iced Tea (Cha Yen)
Cook the tapioca pearls:
Add the water to a medium saucepan and bring to a rolling boil. Carefully add the dried tapioca pearls to the hot water. Be cautious as you add them as they can be fragile. Gently stir the balls, making sure they don’t stick to the bottom of the pan or each other.
Once the water comes back to a boil, reduce the heat so it’s gently boiling and let the tapioca pearls cook for 15 minutes, uncovered. They’ll start to change color but won’t all turn completely black; that’s okay. Occasionally stir the pearls to ensure they don’t stick.
After 15 minutes, scoop out one of the balls, let it cool slightly, and carefully bite into it. If they’re still hard or not soft enough for your taste, continue to cook them for up to 15 minutes longer, checking periodically for texture.
Once they’re cooked to your liking, remove them from the heat, cover the pan, and let them sit in their liquid for 20 minutes or up to an hour. If you’re using quick-cook tapioca balls, follow the instructions on the package.
Meanwhile, make the tea:
While the tapioca pearls are cooking, brew the tea by boiling the water, then placing the bags of black tea in the hot water. Remove from the heat and steep for 5 minutes.
Make the simple syrup:
Meanwhile, make the simple syrup by combining the sugar and water in a small saucepan. Heat the water over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the sugar has completely dissolved. Set aside to cool.
Assemble the boba tea:
Once the tapioca pearls are ready, assemble the milk tea by scooping out the boba pearls from the hot water with a slotted spoon and placing them in 4 glasses.
Add 1 cup of tea and 2 to 3 tablespoons of milk. Add 1 to 2 tablespoons of the simple syrup to taste and top with ice. Stir together and taste. Add more syrup or milk to your taste and serve.
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