Homemade Boba for Bubble Tea

I’m from a little town in Southwest Michigan.  When I moved to Atlanta, Georgia, I was very excited to have my horizons opened up to a wide range of new foods.  One thing I became quickly enamored of was bubble tea.

For those of you who don’t know, bubble tea is a Taiwanese drink made from dark-brewed black tea with milk, sweetened and iced.  You can get it with boba, which are large tapioca pearls. The combination of bitter, sweet, and chewy is amazing.  Unfortunately, it is a sometimes treat for me.  Not only do I risk contaminating JD with gluten (as I have no idea whether the drink is gluten-free) but the caffeine affects my sleep and anxiety for days afterwards.

So began my quest to make decaf, gluten-free bubble tea at home.

It turns out that the only roadblock is the tapioca pearls.  Most of the large pearl tapioca we can get in the U.S. is a direct import from China or Thailand, and I couldn’t find any manufacturer that would confirm their product was gluten-free.

What I did find was this Snapguide by Carolina Moura on making your own boba from scratch.

So this recipe is adapted from the snapguide, but with added detail I had to find out from trial and error.

For the Boba:

1/2 cup tapioca starch
Boiling water (start with 1 cup)
Optional: a few drops of food coloring or frosting dye

The water must be at a full rolling boil.  The heat and moisture activate the starches in the tapioca, making them gel.  If you don’t use boiling water, the pearls will fall apart when they hit the water to cook later.

There is no exact proportion because it varies based on the starch, the humidity, and other unknown factors.  Boil a cup of water, and add a little at a time to the starch, setting the pot back on the burner to keep boiling between adds.

When the tapioca is about the consistency of play-dough (but more elastic and inclined to stick to your fingers) then it is ready.  I used a spatula to stir, but if you have heat-proof sillicone gloves they will work beautifully to knead the starch.

Dust a surface with starch and keep your hands dusted with it throughout.  Wash your hands as needed if dough builds up on your fingers.

Break off tiny pieces of dough at a time.  They will expand in the water, so make the pearls 1/2 the size you think you want to end up with.  Roll the piece on your starch-dusted palm to make into a ball shape (does not have to be perfect).  Set on a piece of parchment paper to dry.  Try to get the balls about the same size for cooking consistency.

Leave out to dry overnight.  Mine were not “dry” in the morning as they still had a soft center, but the outside was crusted over enough to hold together in cooking.

If you made a big batch, you can freeze what you don’t want to cook right away.  Cooked pearls last less than a day, so only cook what you need.

Prep the Tea

Brew a dark black tea by using three tea bags in two cups of water.  I used decaf tea, but caffeinated will work just fine.  Bring to a simmer and turn off the heat to let steep.  Once it is cool enough, transfer to a container and store in the fridge.

Make a simply sugar syrup using 1 part sugar to 2 parts water.  Bring to a boil (stirring constantly) cook for 2 minutes, then remove from heat.  You can store this in the fridge as well, for up to a week  (when it gets cloudy and starts forming crystals, discard it).

Make the Boba

Bring a large pot of water to a boil.  Use about 3 times more water than you think you need, because too little water will become starchy and keep the pearls from cooking through.

Once it is at a rolling boil, drop in the tapioca pearls and stir to separate them.  Cover the pot and boil for 15 minutes.

Turn off the heat and let sit, covered, for an additional 15 minutes.  The boba should be translucent, with no more than a few white spots of uncooked starch, and chewy.

Mix the Tea

Drain boba and drop into glass for bubble tea.  Add sugar syrup and let sit for 5 minutes to absorb sugar.

Add tea and milk (to taste).  Add ice as needed and stir.

Cut the end of a large smoothie straw at an angle (so that the boba are sucked up into the straw).

Enjoy your bubble tea!


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