Learn how to make tapioca pearls for bubble tea from scratch. Whether you like your boba chewy, soft, ‘Q’ or firm, we’ll show you how to achieve that perfect texture.Jump to Recipe
Homemade boba is an absolute must if you love drinking bubble tea. Making boba balls from scratch will give you more control over the size, texture and flavour. This is something you won’t be able to control with store-bought ones.
Our recipe will show you how to make the perfect boba in under 30 minutes. No more crispy centred, mushy or hard boba! We’ll also show you how to make tapioca pearls with matcha, mango, lychee and even rose ones at the end!
What are Tapioca Pearls?
Tapioca pearls are small chewy balls made from tapioca starch. Typically, these spheres are black in colour and are used for bubble tea. Although boba has a gelatinous texture, no gelatin is used in the process of creation. Therefore, this makes these small chewy spheres vegan friendly.
Boba are naturally translucent and white in colour. However, black food colouring or brown sugar is often used in the process. This is to achieve the familiar black colour. Black boba pearls were created for an aesthetic purpose to contrast with the colour of milk tea.
What is Tapioca Starch?
Tapioca starch is a gluten-free flour that comes from the cassava root plant. The native South American plant arrived in Taiwan between 1895 and 1945, under Japanese rule. Tapioca starch is mainly known for making thick and chewy textures in dishes.
Is this the same as sago?
Sago is also a type of chewy ball that is used in Asian desserts. However, it is usually smaller in size and made from a variety of tropical palm stems. Sago is used more widely across different Asian cuisines.
What does it taste like?
Cooked by themselves, there is very little taste to tapioca pearls. These small spheres can be made with brown sugar or steeped in a caramel syrup for a sweeter taste.
Some people describe the texture of these small spheres to resemble that of jelly and gummy bears.
In Taiwan, the texture of boba pearls is referred to as Q or QQ. The term itself is hard to translate. However, it attempts to describe the mouthfeels of the soft yet resilient or bouncy texture. The high percentage of starch in cassava root is the reason behind this chewy texture. Other dishes which are also described in Taiwan as Q include fish balls, mochi, taro balls and tangyuan.
Where is it from?
Black tapioca pearls were first created as a cheaper alternative to sago. Milk tea with boba was originally created in Taiwan during the 1980s. Milk tea was not an unfamiliar concept to the tea-drinking culture in East Asia. Meanwhile using boba in desserts was already a common practice. The combination of both naturally kicked off in popularity when it was first introduced as a cooling summer drink and snack.
Although the inventor of bubble tea is much disputed, there are two stores in Taiwan which fight the claim of inventing the drink. As neither side won the patent lawsuit, this allowed many vendors to adopt and sell their version of the beverage snack world wide.
Why is bubble tea also called boba?
Boba can refer to the pearls alone or the milk tea drink as a whole. Interestingly, the term 波霸 (bōbà) in Chinese is slang for a woman with voluptuous breasts. The pearls was nicknamed boba as a gimmick for having larger boba balls than all other competing stores.
It is widely believed that the term was adopted by overseas Chinese who referred to the beverage as boba. This was easier to pronounce than the Chinese term 珍珠奶茶 (zhēnzhū nǎichá). Today, the small black spheres are interchangeably called boba, pearls or tapioca pearls.
Is it healthy?
Tapioca pearls are made of starchy carbohydrates. This means that they are calorie-dense and can be hard to digest. There are very little nutritional benefits but there are no adverse effects on health when consumed in moderation.
Some manufacturers may use colouring, thickeners and preservatives to prolong shelf life and its appearance. These ingredients can lead to gastrointestinal problems. This is especially the case when consumed in large amounts.
Fresh vs Store-bought
The benefits of making tapioca pearls yourself is that you know exactly what ingredients are inside it. Also, you will be able to customise it entirely by making unique flavours like mango boba or matcha pearls.
The disadvantage is the time it takes to make tapioca pearls. It is also difficult to get the consistency right on the first few attempts.
Store-bought pearls will guarantee a degree of texture and taste to resemble those at a bubble tea shop. Wu Fu Yuan is a brand which we recommend. The brand has created the several instant options that can cook in 5 minutes.
Using Food Colouring
A lot of recipes will call for the use of black food colouring as this is a traditional method to make tapioca pearls. There is no problem with using food colouring.
However, for the recipe below, we will be using brown sugar as a replacement. Using brown sugar is a good way to get a sweeter flavour and also colouring at the same time.
How to Make Tapioca Pearls
- 80 g tapioca starch
- 80 g brown sugar
- 50 ml water
- Boil the water and add the brown sugar.
- Once it is well incorporated and bubbling, turn the heat off. Add 40g of the tapioca starch and mix well.
- While the mixture is still hot, add the rest of the starch flour and mix well again. Allow the mixture to slightly cool before proceeding to the next step.
- On a flat surface, knead the dough. Sprinkle some of the flour and roll out the mixture to about 1-1.5cm thick.
- Using a knife, cut these into 1.5cm by 1.5cm squares.
- Roll these in your hand into small ball shapes. Cover in some dry tapioca starch to avoid the balls from sticking to each other.
- Boil 8 cups of water and add the dry tapioca pearls. Allow this to cook on for 6-8 minutes on medium-high heat.
- Turn to low heat and allow this to cook for another 5-10 minutes. Remove the tapioca pearls from the boiling water once these begin to float to the surface.
- In another pot, boil 60ml of water and 80g of brown sugar for 5 minutes and reduce to a syrup.
- Add the black boba immediately to an ice bath for 1 minute.
- Put the tapioca pearls into the prepared brown sugar syrup on low heat. Allow this to steep for at least 6-8 minutes or until the syrup thickens to a desired consistency. Stir occasionally. This can be immediately added to hot drinks. For cold drinks, allow the mixture to rest for 10-15 minutes before assembling.
How to Make Perfect Tapioca Pearls At Home
Everyone loves their boba differently. Some will prefer them soft on the outside but with a slight resistance at the centre. Others might prefer the black boba made firm and al dente. Whatever it is, pay attention to the tips below on how to make tapioca pearls that’s perfect for milk tea.
The small spheres should be cooked to a 1:8 ratio with water. This will allow each raw pearl to be evenly cooked and become more supple.
Temperature control is one of the key factors in getting the correct consistency desired for pearls. For small spheres that are soft on the outside and slightly resistant on the inside, keep the heat at medium-high to cook the outer layer of the pearls. Then on stew the boba on low heat to cook the centre.
Altering the cooking time will change the firmness of the boba.
- Firm: 6 – 8 minutes
- Chewy: 8 – 10 minutes
- Soft: 10 -15 minutes
- Very Soft: 20 – 30 minutes
We recommend staying with 1.5 cm big tapioca pearls. As these will likely increase in size once cooked. They are absolutely perfect for hot milk tea drinks like Royal Ceylon, Roasted Tea and Classic Milk Tea to absorb the flavours. The pearls are also likely to maintain a great texture throughout. Any bigger than this size, it may not be suitable for cold milk tea drinks. This is because the bigger the homemade boba, the faster they will harden on the surface and lose their original consistency.
For cold or iced beverages, like fruit teas and fresh milk, smaller sized pearls might be more suitable.
An ice bath is essential to get the QQ mouthfeel or bouncy texture. This will immediately stop the cooking process and make the boba firm up slightly. The longer this is left in the ice bath, the firmer the boba will be.
Running these under cold water also works too. Besides, cold water helps to remove any additional starch on the surface. This can greatly improve the texture for some people and also prevent them from sticking to each other.
Here is a video you can watch that shows you how to do this:
There are a few ways to adjust the sweetness of these boba pearls. Here are 2 ways.
Levels of brown sugar
You can change the amount of brown sugar used with tapioca starch. Instead, you can use more water to replace the sugar. This will make tapioca pearls less sweet. If you still want to retain the appearance of these homemade boba, make them using black food colouring.
The longer you steeped the small spheres in sugar syrup, the sweeter it will be. For a sweeter taste, simmer the mixture in brown sugar for more than 20 minutes. It is important to begin the steeping process when the homemade boba are still warm at the centre. This is so they can better absorb the flavours.
How long will they last?
Cooked pearls will last 4 hours at room temperature. Refrigerated pearls can last up to 3 days. However, these will not retain their original texture. While it is possible to freeze boba, we don’t recommend freezing as the boba won’t be soft and chewy. It is best to only cook how much you would like to use.
On the other hand, raw pearls have a much longer shelf life. Dried pearls covered in starch can last 2-3 months if stored correctly. Store in a cool dry place and away from sunlight. Using an airtight container will help to prolong its storage life.
The recipe above provides the basis on how to make tapioca pearls at home. Here are some popular customisations to experiment with.
Use a mix of the flour to change the texture. Try using sweet potato flour, cornflour, vital wheat gluten flour or even butter squash to change the texture of it. We recommend substituting 20% of tapioca starch with cornflour. This should give you a more firm, chewy centre. It will also make the small spheres harder to overcook in the process.
Shape and size
Get creative and have some with making boba at home! Change the size of the boba. Try cubes, diamonds, or even stars! Though do keep in mind, this will significantly change the cooking time required. Keep the size of these relatively small and even. This will make sure that the pearls will cook evenly.
Why stick to brown sugar? There are many different flavours you can try to incorporate when making tapioca pearls. Here is our favourite alternatives to try!
Matcha Tapioca Pearls
- 70g tapioca starch
- 30g potato starch
- 1 tsp matcha powder
- 100ml of boiling hot water
Mix the dry ingredients together. Once the water has boiled, add half of the dry mixture and incorporate well. Then add the rest and roll into small sphere shapes. Follow the main recipe instructions to cook. For a stronger green tea flavour, you add more matcha powder. Alternatively, you can steep the cooked pearls in matcha and brown sugar. This will also work with blue flower peas if you’re looking for natural food colouring.
- 1-2 tsp of rose syrup
- 70g tapioca starch
- 30g potato starch
- 100ml of boiling hot water
Combine the dry ingredients. Once the water has boiled, add the dry mixture in two separate times. Carry out this process quickly so you can incorporate all the ingredients. Roll into small sphere shapes and follow the main recipe instructions to cook. Adjust the amount of rose syrup used to change the flavour of the tapioca pearls.
- 50ml of mango puree
- 50ml of water
- 70g tapioca starch
- 30g potato starch
Combine equal parts of mango puree with water and bring to a boil. Once this has boiled, add in the tapioca and potato starch. Mix well and make into small balls. You can use 80ml of mango juice instead of mango puree.
In theory, most fruits can use this recipe. Especially in either juice or puree form. This fruit-infused boba recipe works best for tropical fruits like passionfruit, pineapple, lychee, and dragon fruit.