Popping boba is a fun bubble tea topping that, literally, bursts with fruity deliciousness! It is a dessert pearl, similar to tapioca pearls made out of colourful fruit juice. Moreover, making them at home is a fun-filled activity for both kids and adults! So as you experience the world of food science, you also get to enjoy sweet popping boba at the end!
This article tells you everything there is to know about this delicious boba topping, including how to make it using two separate, easy to follow methods.
Have you ever wanted to customize your boba pearls? Or perhaps wanted to ensure that allergens or harmful components were not present in your drink? Now is your chance to make it at home! So let's begin by asking the most important question.
What is popping boba made out of?
Most fans of bubble tea would have tasted this sweet treat at some point. It is a jelly-like ball with thin skin that bursts when pressed or bitten. Stores will usually make these pearls with fruit juice as their base. Interestingly, you can also use black and green tea or even coffee as a base too. But what gives it its uniquely addictive texture?
Two food additives, sodium alginate and calcium salt (which can vary), are responsible for the texture. These additives are vital in achieving that perfectly poppable mouthfeel in the popping boba. These are perfectly safe and are commonly used by chefs in the lesser-known cooking discipline of molecular gastronomy.
Although these additives may seem dangerous and foreign for a non-specialist, rest assured that they cause no health issues. For example, sodium alginate is used by chefs for many other things, from ice cream to cheese to even instant noodles.
Getting your hands on these two additives might be difficult if you live in a region where online shopping is more limited. This is why we have included a different method using a more widely available additive: agar-agar powder. Although this is not a technically accurate recipe for making popping boba, it can be a great substitute. This is especially useful for those who aren't comfortable using actual additives.
What's the difference between boba and popping boba?
Of course, the most important and noticeable difference is that the former is made using tapioca flour, and the latter is made using mainly fruit juices. However, there are also other differences.
Tapioca pearls have more of a heavier, chewy texture. On the other hand, popping boba is less heavy and less tough. The latter bursts when bitten, adding a sudden burst of refreshing liquid to the mouthful of the drink.
Tapioca pearls are in almost every bubble tea drink and several other desserts such as cold puddings, ice creams, cakes, pastries, etc. In addition, if you buy make-at-home bubble tea kits, shops will usually include tapioca pearls as the default topping choice.
Fruit pearls, on the other hand, are less versatile and more specialized. They help to contrast or complement the flavour of the drink or frozen dessert. For example, you can pair mango pearls with mango milk or plain milk; and strawberry pearls in a cheesecake drink. The possibilities are endless!
However, fewer people use them in tea-based drinks. Most people will prefer using them in milky or fizzy drinks.
How does it work?
As mentioned previously, popping boba uses a technique of molecular gastronomy, which is a 'science of the chemical reactions of cooking'. This technique is called spherification. Fine dining restaurants pioneered the method in the 1950s.
Chefs use sodium alginate, calcium lactate, or other calcium salts, such as calcium chloride, to catalyze spherification. These ingredients help form the liquid in question into delectable spheres with a thin skin that bursts when pressure is applied.
You achieve this process at home with a syringe or dropper to form pearl shapes. If you want to make these on a larger scale, we highly recommend investing in a caviar maker. This is a specialized molecular gastronomy tool.
The juice or liquid to be made into popping pearls is mixed with sodium alginate. This liquid is then dropped into a calcium salt solution to stabilize the pearls and achieve the thin coating on their exterior.
However, the ratios of the salts must be precise for the textures to be perfect. So follow our recipe exactly to make sure you can make the ideal fruit boba!
Compared to regular boba pearls, these are relatively much lower in calories since the only contributing ingredient is the fruit juice itself. Thus, each serving (of 30 grams) contains only 30 calories.
This makes homemade popping boba made with tea or black coffee the perfect choice if you want to enjoy boba drinks at a fraction of the caloric cost. However, please note that it contains no protein and no fat since it is made with a beverage.
Fruit pearls, as the name suggests, are made using mainly fruit juices. Mango, lychee and strawberry are among the popular popping boba flavours offered at tea shops.
The science behind spherification ensures that you can make virtually any liquid into pearls - even water itself!
However, since calcium causes the sodium to clump, the liquid used must be low in calcium. This means that you must avoid dairy or high-calcium fruit juices (like orange).
There is another process known as reverse spherification. If you use this process instead, you will be able to make fruit boba from high in calcium liquids. However, we will not discuss that here since the additives used are different.
As mentioned previously, the main chemical additives while making popping boba is sodium alginate and calcium salt (we use calcium lactate in our recipe).
Fruit juice provides the bulk of the pearl. We recommend sweetening it with sugar beforehand and adding a little food colouring if you want a vivid colour.
Finally, distilled water is essential to ensure that the sodium alginate solution does not contain any calcium radicals. That could set the solution and ruin it!
Besides these, water is the other most essential ingredient. After all, this is essentially a chemistry experiment!
A dropper, syringe, or caviar maker is essential to creating the pearl-shaped droplets which give popping boba its name. You can purchase these tools online or from a pharmacy. Most of these are food-grade already, but you can sterilize them using hot water.
Other than that, you also need:
- slotted spoon (or strainer)
- heatproof bowl
- refrigerator or freezer
No additional tools or equipment is necessary!
How long does popping boba last?
You can store these pearls overnight in the fridge once prepared with no ill effects, unlike tapioca pearls. They can safely last for up to three days in the refrigerator. However, do not freeze the pearls since they can burst as the liquid expands.
Popping Boba Recipe | DIY at Home Using Sodium Alginate
- Dissolve calcium lactate in distilled water. Let sit for 4 hours, or overnight. Strain after this time.
- Mix drinking water with sodium alginate. Stir until thickened and smooth. Then mix into fruit juice, add food colouring (optional) and stir until smooth.
- Store the juice in the fridge for up to 2 hours. Prepare a bowl of 2 cups of clean drinking water to rinse the pearls after preparation.
- Using a dropper or a syringe, drop the juice mixture drop by drop into the calcium lactate solution. Let it sit for ten minutes.
- Then rinse the pearls repeatedly in the clean drinking water and they are ready to use.
- Serve your popping boba as bubble tea topping or with a chill dessert!
- You can add food colouring to the sodium alginate and fruit juice mixture to create bright coloured balls.
- Make sure the fruit juice or liquid you use has low calcium content (such as dragonfruit, mango, green tea, etc.). High calcium content will ruin the process.
- Make sure the fruit juice tastes exactly how you want the pearls to taste. You will not be able to add sugar later.
- If using a small sphere mould to, add the juice to the mould and put it in the fridge again for 4 hours.
Calories have been calculated using an online calculator. Nutritional information offered on Honest Food Talks is for general information purposes and are only rough estimations.
Want some help explaining how the whole process works to your kids? Elisa from GoldieBlox has got you covered! The Youtube video below explains the molecular gastronomy concepts in simple terms and shows you how to make the 'fruit punch flavour bubbles'!
How to make without Sodium Alginate
If you are not able to get sodium alginate, we have an alternate recipe you could try! By using agar agar powder and vegetable oil, you will be able to make popping boba too!
Just a note that the texture of these pearls is not the same as that of authentic popping pearls, but they make a convincing enough substitute. They are also much easier to make. Read on to see the complete list of ingredients and methods on how to make popping boba without sodium alginate.
- 1 cup vegetable oil
- 1 cup fruit juice
- ½ teaspoon agar agar powder
- 2 cups cold clean drinking water
- Add the vegetable oil into a container and put it in the freezer for 1 hour.
- Combine juice and agar powder in a saucepan. Over medium heat, bring the mixture to a boil while stirring continuously.
- Turn off the heat and let cool for ten minutes. Transfer to a different heatproof bowl and let cool for a further 10 minutes.
- Fill a dropper with this juice mixture and take the oil out of the freezer. Drop by drop, add the juice mixture to the oil. The drops will freeze into popping boba and sink to the bottom.
- Remove the pearls from the oil using a strainer or a slotted spoon. Transfer the pearls into a bowl of cold, clean drinking water and rinse them repeatedly.
- Drain the pearls and let them air dry for a few minutes. Serve and enjoy!
We hope this recipe for popping boba helped you learn something new about the science behind what goes into making your food. This does make a great project to do with family and friends, and it's much healthier to make at home. Try using our alternate recipe in case you can't find the required additives. Enjoy!
How did your colourful pearls turn out? Please share with us your delightful popping balls by tagging us on Instagram @honestfoodtalks!
Perhaps you'd prefer the classic milk tea this time around? You can make them at home too! Check out our complete guide on how to make your own bubble tea from scratch.