With TikTok and Oscar Mayer out here convincing us that hot dogs are reasonable straws for beer (who uses a straw for beer ever?), I’d like to bring us back to a much more approachable drink-snack combo: bubble tea. Bubble tea, or boba tea, is a sweet drink that is both refreshing and comforting, and every sip leaves you with a chewy bite to enjoy. You can buy this slurpable snack at a devoted shop, and some Asian restaurants sell them too, but if you live in a bubble tea desert or simply want to customize your own, you can make great bubble tea at home.
What is bubble tea?
Bubble tea is a pretty flexible term, because it’s more about the bubbles. That is to say, you can put bubbles, or boba pearls, in juice, tea, or coffee if you want. Boba pearls are usually made from tapioca starch, a bit of sugar, and water. From here you can add in flavorings or food coloring for a little pizzazz. These ingredients form a soft dough and they’re rolled into pea-sized balls. You can make the pearls at home or buy ready-made ones online or in some markets.
The starch balls appear opaque when raw, or lightly colored if you use brown sugar or food coloring, but after they’re cooked, the boba appear translucent and glossy. Toss them in a quick simple syrup or honey, and scoop them into your chilled beverage of choice.
In times of need, these are my bubble-tea helpers:
- Ninja Professional Plus 9-cup Food Processor
- Tapioca Pearl Black Sugar Flavor
- Black Tapioca Pearls by Buddha Bubbles
- Boba Straw Stainless Steel Extra Wide
How do you make bubble tea?
Making bubble tea at home is cheaper than buying it, and it allows you to customize your experience with different drinks, sugar ratios, and milks. It’s pretty straightforward from scratch, and unsurprisingly, even faster from a bag. If you’re using pre-made boba, just follow the directions on the back for boiling. If you decide to make your own, set aside a little bit of time. Making the dough can be pretty quick but boiling takes about 40 minutes. (Pre-made boba pearls cook in 10-15 minutes.) There are an infinite number of scratch recipes available, including mine below, but here are some tips that will make any recipe faster.
Use a machine’s help
I can’t tell you how many recipes instruct to mix this dough by hand. If you’re already on the fence about spending your time on a dough, this will definitely kill your vibe. It’s sticky but somehow dusty at first, and if you’re not familiar with the dough, it can be a mess. Use a machine if you have one. It’ll cut down on the mess, save your muscles, and make for an evenly mixed dough.
Any mixer or dough attachment that can make cookie dough will help make this recipe easier, faster, and more fun. Try a stand mixer with the paddle attachment or a food processor with a dough blade. I used the latter. My Ninja food processor has a dough blade attachment, which is basically just a few plastic wings that spin around beating up the ingredients. It’s perfect for making dough.
Only make what you need
Boba don’t keep for very long after they’re cooked. After three to six hours the texture can change and they’re not as chewy. Only cook as many pearls as you’ll eat, and freeze the rest of the raw ones if they’re homemade. If they’re premade, just keep the remaining pearls in the package and store as the directions indicate.
Use the snake-and-cut method
A small amount of dough makes a lot of pearls. Some recipes will have you measure out each dough ball, and others have you wing it. While it’s fine to use whatever method you like best, just make sure the pearls are the same size so they cook at the same rate, and so they’re small enough to fit up a boba straw if you’re using one.
I like the snake-and-cut method instead of using a tiny spoon to scoop the dough. The dough can get stuck in the spoon, it takes a heck of a lot longer, and it doesn’t ensure the balls will be the same size. The snake and cut method works as follows. Pinch off a small amount of dough, roughly a ball about an inch in diameter, and roll it out into a long, thin snake. I used my palms to press the dough against the cutting board and made the dough about the thickness of a common pencil. Then I took a bench scraper and cut small nubs at even intervals (about quarter-inch intervals). I recommend doing six or seven cuts, rounding them off with your finger tips and checking the size. If you notice that one batch ended up fatter than the last, adjust the interval size to make the next batch smaller.
Check for doneness
These starchy bubbles cook in simmering water for about 20 minutes, but the real magic happens when you close the lid and let them cook in the hot water for additional time. Whether you’re using homemade tapioca pearls or store-bought, the pearls will change from opaque to translucent when they’re finished. Depending on how large your pearls ended up being, you might need to adjust your cooking time. When you think they’re finished, scoop up a few boba in a slotted spoon. They should appear like gelatin, translucent or cloudy if you added coloring. Mine have no coloring but they’re made with light brown sugar, so you can see they’re golden in color but otherwise see-through. If they’re still white in the center, the starch inside is under-cooked. Put them back in the hot water with the lid on for another five minutes and check again.
Run the cooked boba under cold water for a few seconds, shake dry, and toss with honey or a simple syrup before adding them to your drink.
Make strong tea
Coffee and juice both pack a lot of flavor even when watered down with ice cubes. Simply pour either of those into a glass, add your boba, and some ice. Tea on the other hand is comparably delicate, even black tea. To make your bubble tea more flavorful, make your tea two or three times the strength. Use two or three tea bags and pour hot water over them in a mug. Steep this as directed, usually four to seven minutes. Remove the bags and cool in the fridge. When the tea is cold, add the syrup-coated tapioca pearls, ice, and milk if using.
Bubble tea is easiest to drink with an extra-wide boba straw, but if you don’t have that, don’t worry: Just use a spoon to scoop up a few bubbles between sips. It’s better than a hot dog straw anyway. This recipe makes enough tapioca dough for about four servings. If you won’t use it all, shape the dough into tapioca pearls and freeze them for later. Lay them on a parchment lined baking sheet and put that in the freezer for about 30 minutes. Then transfer the frozen pearls to a bag or container to store in the freezer.
Brown Sugar Tapioca Pearl (or Boba) Recipe
- ¾ cup tapioca flour
- 2 tablespoons brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons boiling water
- ¼ cup water (for simple syrup)
- ¼ cup packed brown sugar (for simple syrup)
In a food processor with a dough blade, add the tapioca flour and brown sugar. Pulse a few times to mix. Add the freshly boiling water to the food processor and run the food processor until a ball of dough forms. It should look like moist clay, or Play-Doh. If the mixture looks gooey, add a tablespoon at a time of tapioca flour and run the machine again until it gathers into a dough.
Put the dough on a work surface and knead it with your hand to make a uniform dough that feels soft, but not dry or sticky. Remove a small piece, about an inch hunk, and cover the remaining dough so it doesn’t get dry. Roll this piece into a long thing snake, or until it’s the thickness of a pencil. Cut quarter-inch pieces off and shape those into balls. Set them aside and dust them lightly with some tapioca flour so they don’t stick together. Repeat this with the rest of the dough.
Bring a medium pot of water to boil. Put the tapioca pearls in a strainer to shake off the extra starch and drop them into the water. Once the boba rise to the surface, lower the heat to a simmer and cook them, uncovered, for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, make the simple syrup. Add the brown sugar and water to a small pot and simmer for about three minutes until the sugar is dissolved. Set aside to cool. Once the 20 minutes is up, cover the pot with a lid and turn off the heat. Let them sit and cook in the residual heat for another 15 minutes. Check for doneness. Strain the boba and run them under cold water for about 30 seconds. Shake them dry and add them to the pot of simple syrup. Leave the boba here until you’re ready to add them to a cold drink within the next two hours for the best texture.