I’ve had a slew of bad tapioca milk tea experiences lately. The problem is usually the tapioca balls, also called pearls, bubbles or boba. They are so easy to make, but the ones I keep getting served are soft, not chewy, slimy, etc.
For those of you who are unfamiliar, tapioca milk tea originated from Taiwan and is served in various Asian tea cafes. It’s no longer limited to milk tea as there are also usually other fruit flavored tea beverages, slushies, etc. All of them usually offer the option of tapioca balls. which are brown balls that have a chewy texture.
My favorite tea place is the Half & Half chain in Los Angeles, which makes honey boba. Tapioca balls have very little flavor on their own, so when it is sweetened with honey, they taste much better. Honey boba has become quite popular now and most of the new tea shops popping up usually make honey boba.
I used to make pearl milk tea all the time as a kid and before the tea cafes even came to the US. I remember it being quite easy, so after another bad boba experience, I decided to make my own and do a little tutorial on how best to make the perfect tapioca balls.
You can buy the tapioca balls at most Chinese markets like Ranch 99. This is the brand I usually buy. The most commonly found ones are the brown ones. I prefer the colored ones just because they are so much prettier. There are also green tea flavored ones. The instructions for how to make them are on the back of the package, which I mostly follow with a few modifications.
First, bring a small pot of water with about 1/4 cup of sugar to a boil and then drop in your tapioca balls. I usually do about 2 handfuls per each cup of tea. The pearls will soon expand and rise to the top. Once they do, turn down the stove to low and let the pearls simmer for about 5 minutes, with the lid on (but allow steam to come out so the pot does not over boil). Then you remove the pearls from the water and drop them in a bowl with a few tablespoons of honey. You want enough honey so that each ball touches the honey. You let the tapioca sit in the honey until it is ready to be consumed.
You don’t want to put the pearls into your drink until the very last minute because once the pearls are in the drink, they will soon lose their chewy consistency.
For the most traditional milk tea, usually a black tea is used as the base. My favorite is actually oolong tea, which is a light brown color, and some other popular offerings include green tea and jasmine. Common ways to add the milk are milk powder, sugar and fresh milk, or my favorite: condensed milk. You add just enough to your desired sweetness.
The tapioca balls stay chewy for a few hours after cooking, so you never want to make them too long ahead of time. Also you can’t refrigerate them as they will completely lose their texture, so try not to make too much extra. This is a fun project if you have a large group or even if it’s just you. And it’s pretty easy to make and much cheaper than paying close to $4 per cup.
water for boiling
Bring small pot of water to boil and add about 1/4 cup sugar. Add in tapioca and let them float to surface. Bring water to a low boil and place lid over pot, adjusting lid to allow steam to release. Boil for 5 minutes, then remove boba from water and place into a medium sized bowl with honey (about 1/4 to 1/2 cup so that all the boba touches the honey). Make sure the bowl is large enough so the boba are not all piled on top of each other because they will stick to each other once they cool. Let boba sit in honey until it is ready to be eaten, then put into your milk tea right before. Boba lose their consistency soon after sitting in milk tea so don't put in too soon. The boba stay chewy for a few hours if you just let them sit in the honey. Don't remove from the honey as they will end up sticking together. Don't refrigerate as they will completely lose their consistency and become brittle.