Tea

How to Make Milk Tea at Home Like a Barista

Homemade tapioca pearls and all.

May 20, 2019
Photo by Ty Mecham. Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog. Prop Stylist: Brooke Deonarine.

Here’s an unpopular opinion: I hate bubble tea. Or at least, I used to.

Now, don’t get me wrong—I love my Asian milk teas, from lactose-rich Hong Kong lai chas, to foamy hōjicha lattes, to super floral Thai cha yens, to local Malaysian hawker stall teh susus. But the addition of chewy tapioca pearls (or boba) into any of these teas does nothing for me. The pearls are often gloopy, flavorless, incessantly chewy, and stick to your incisors like gum under a shoe. So despite the rise of Gong Cha, Boba Guys, CoCo, and dozens of other boba chains sprouting across cities in the U.S. and throughout the world, I always had my milk tea plain over pearled (and always with half-ice and half-sugar).

Until recently.

There was a part of me that refused to believe that all bobas were bad. Surely, I thought, there’s a milk tea out there that’s to my liking, one with bubbles so supple and flavorful, that yields under the slightest bite, like sweet little jelly balls. So call it due diligence, culinary research, or an Asian bias for boba, but I decided to give it one more try, by making my own at home. And oh, did it turn me around! I went from boba basher to boba believer.

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Top Comment:
“I've been looking for bubble tea recipes, since there aren't any stores in my town. Will definitely try when I can find the ingredients! I've tried your coconut pandan tart on your website. Also mildly obsessed with your articles for your website and tastecooking.com <3”
— Tammie
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Here's how to make bubble tea at home:


Rolling out the pearls

Photo by Yi Jun Loh

The tapioca pearls in a typical boba are made of just three ingredients—tapioca starch, sugar, and water. It starts off as a dough, which then gets portioned and rolled into little balls. This sounds easy enough, but tapioca starch has this really sticky quality, which gives the pearls their characteristic chewiness, but it also means that a bit too much moisture in the tapioca dough will make it stick to any surface it touches, becoming nearly impossible to work with.

This is why most online recipes start off with pre-made boba pearls bought from the supermarket or your local Asian grocers, circumventing the hassle of working with tapioca starch altogether. But to me, that defeats the whole purpose of a homemade boba. So I made my own pearls, too.

After many failed attempts that left overly sticky tapioca residue all over my countertop, I found a ratio that works perfectly every time. The secret, I discovered, was to err on the side of caution and use more tapioca starch than most recipes would call for. (Working in grams instead of cups is important to get the right consistency for the dough.) This results in a much more amicable dough, which makes rolling it out into little pearls a breeze.

Tip: If you find that yours is too sticky to work with, then just try adding some more tapioca starch.


Cooking the pearls

Photo by Yi Jun Loh

After rolling, the tapioca pearls are cooked in a pot of boiling water for around 15 minutes, while being constantly stirred to prevent them from sticking to each other. At most boba shops, the process ends here and the pearls are then simply plonked into milk tea and served immediately. But this doesn’t solve the problem of that typical, lackluster, flavorless pearl.

So I added an extra step to the process, one that’s very much inspired by the latest boba trend coming out of the heartland of boba, Taiwan: braised brown sugar boba. For this boba, on top of boiling the pearls, they’re cooked a second time—simmered in a thick syrup of aromatic, molasses-y brown sugar. And boy was this a game changer.

Not only does the braise add exponentially more sweet complexity and caramel-like flavor to the pearls (and by extension the drink itself), it also alters their texture. So instead of pesky little starch-balls, the pearls are softened into supple spheres oozing with syrup.

Photo by Yi Jun Loh

While this might seem like an extra step in the process that could technically be skipped (it would still make a boba like those served at most shops), know that in Taiwan and many parts of Asia, braised bobas have long superseded regular boba, ushering in a new age of boba bliss, because it is just that much better than regular boba. (Trust me, it’s just a matter of time before this trend hits American shores.)


Brewing the tea

Now for the tea. Most bobas have a black tea base, and that’s how I think all boba should be had. (Some places put tapioca pearls in fruit juice and smoothies, which is all kinds of heretical.) However, if you’re not a fan of regular, bittersweet black tea, an Earl Grey or Thai tea base works really well too, adding some fruity and floral funk to the tea base.

The rest of the process is relatively simple. All you need to do here is weigh out the tea leaves, and steep it in some warm milk (as opposed to water, which would dilute the tea base), then chill it in the fridge until you need it.


Putting it all together

Photo by Yi Jun Loh

There are two methods to serve up this boba. Sure, you could simply dump the pearls into the bottom of a cup, and fill it up the rest of the way with milk tea. Or you could lean into the Taiwanese trend and add a whole lot more to the finished aesthetic of your glass. At Taiwanese brown sugar boba shops like Xing Fu Tang and Tiger Sugar, they place the syrupy pearls close to the lip of a tilted cup and let the pearls slide to the bottom. As they slide, the pearls will leave a streaks of caramel, creating this trippy, tiger stripe–like ripple that makes regular servings of boba seem boring.

Whichever way you choose, you’ll still end up with a creamy, concentrated cup of tea, enriched by the sultry sweetness of the brown sugar caramel, along with an extra textural dimension from homemade tapioca pearls, which are soft, sweet, syrupy, and this time around, actually enhance the milk tea experience itself.

So despite starting out this project with little love for boba, by the end of it, it’s safe to say that I’m now on the road to becoming a boba bae.

Are you a bubble tea fan? Tell us in the comments below!

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Engineer + cook + food blogger. All about chocolate chip cookies, funky fresh ferments, and abusing alliteration.

12 Comments

Laura A. June 1, 2019
My daughter and I have been wishing and hoping for a bubble tea store in our hometown of Charleston, SC, for years! We've only been able to indulge in NYC, where she's in college. Now we have a summer project!
 
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Yi J. June 7, 2019
Yayyy! Let me know how your summer project goes! :D
 
Laura A. June 8, 2019
We totally will! I've already stocked up on everything from tapioca starch to bubble tea-sized straws!
 
Laura A. June 13, 2019
Well, we made it yesterday! We didn't do some things right, I don't think, though. The boba recipe came out too dry, which made it hard to roll out and form balls. I think we'll try less starch next time, and shorter cooking time. They also came out chewy even after all the cooking, which I know you were able to prevent. Also, I think we need to put more tea bags in the milk. But other than a couple of kinks, we have a winner! It'll be so nice to only go as far as our fridge for our bubble tea fix!
 
Emily June 1, 2019
Is tapioca starch the same as tapioca flour? I have to try this!!!!!
 
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Yi J. June 7, 2019
Yup, to my knowledge they're the same!
 
Tammie May 24, 2019
This is amazing. I'm a Singaporean living in the Netherlands. I've been looking for bubble tea recipes, since there aren't any stores in my town. Will definitely try when I can find the ingredients! I've tried your coconut pandan tart on your website.

Also mildly obsessed with your articles for your website and tastecooking.com <3
 
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Yi J. May 28, 2019
Haha I guess the bubble tea bug hasn't hit the Netherlands eh! But omgosh thank you so much for your kind words!!! Also hope you liked the coconut pandan tart. 😊
 
Anjenette B. May 22, 2019
Thanks for sharing! I would love to make my own milktea at home. Would like also to request if you have other ingredients for different flavors of milktea.. 😊
 
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Yi J. May 23, 2019
You're welcome!! Ooh my favourite is Japanese hojicha, but other tea flavours like earl grey, green tea (matcha), or chai lattes work too!
 
HalfPint May 22, 2019
"Homemade tapioca pearls and all." I think I love you ;)
 
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Yi J. May 23, 2019
Hahah! ❤