Bubble tea "DIY" project

Have you had bubble tea?  I really love to drink them.  You might know it as boba tea or pearl tea.  It's basically a cold (could be hot but generally cold) milk tea served with large black tapioca pearls.  I've always been curious about what it would take to make my own at home so I gave it a shot.
An import out of Taiwan, I remember when this drink began bubbling up (pun intended) here in the U.S. around the mid-90's...at least that's when I started drinking them.  You can get boba (the tapioca pearls) with many kinds of flavored drinks or coffee but the black milk tea is the classic and my favorite.  Maybe it's my love of carbs but I simply cannot resist that slightly springy chewiness of well-cooked tapioca pearls mixed with a nice cold milk tea.  I wish I could cut down on my consumption of these drinks because let's face it, there's too much sugar and other questionable ingredients in these beverages we buy but I just can't resist having one whenever I get a chance.

I remember falling in love with this drink and buying these large 20-oz. cups of bubble tea back in the 90's and wondering if it was just a fad.  Fast forward all these years later, bubble or boba tea is a mainstay that can be found all over Chinatowns and Asian restaurants and I'm still drinking them.  Before we got married, my husband and I used to go to one particular Chinese cafe in Brooklyn (I've talked about my love of Chinese cafes or tea shops before) all the time to drink bubble tea and eat snacks or lunch and chat.  I just loved doing that.  My husband liked it too but no where near as much as I do but since he likes to indulge me, we went often for afternoon tea and sometimes even right after lunch.  The place is no longer there now so I'm glad we took advantage of it when we had the chance.  

Living in New Jersey now, I can still get my bubble tea "fix" in a couple of places nearby and I do.  But I always wonder what it'd take to make the drink myself and figured it'd be cool to be able to control what I put in it (some places use powdered mixes for the tea).  I remember reading this post about making your own bubble tea from thekitch.com but it sounded too good to be true.   From what I hear, the homemade version usually falls short of expectations and getting those tapioca pearls just right can be a challenge.  Plus, I don't know anyone personally who's made it at home.  I had a lingering suspicion that making a cup of bubble tea requires more work and technique than we realize but I'd never know unless I try. 

So after having actually done it, I have tell you that it is indeed a lot more work than I'm willing to invest in regularly!  Surprisingly, getting the right texture of tapioca pearls wasn't the biggest issue (though it was very time consuming).  Turns out, getting the tea just right is a tricky thing that takes practice.  So all in all, while it is very gratifying to successfully make something with your own two hands, it is quite a commitment to brew your own tea in advance, watch a pot of boiling tapioca pearls for 2 hours, and make your own sugar syrup before you can assemble this drink.  It came out quite good and tasting similar to the tea from one of my favorite places to get it but given the amount of time and effort, I think I'll just gladly hand over my $3.50 and let someone else do the work. 

Check out what it takes to "do-it-yourself" after the jump...

I've now satisfied my curiosity about the bubble tea but this initiative really got kick-started when I was shopping for tapioca pearls to make those Asian dessert soups that I blogged about here and here.  I found this bag of black tapioca pearls next to other similar tapioca products and thought I'd buy it and take it home and give it a try one day.  Afterall, it costs less than $2 a bag.  Since I can't read Chinese, I asked my sister to translate the cooking instructions on the packet for me.  It turns out the instructions weren't as simple as I assumed.

But let's step back a minute and begin at the beginning.  I think it would be simpler to break down the making of the bubble tea into 2 parts: (1) Brewing the tea and (2) Cooking the tapioca pearls.

Brewing the tea:

I gave the tea part of the bubble tea some thought before starting.  In fact, I actually went to a notable tea store in NYC's Chinatown (we were in the neighborhood for another purpose) and asked what type of tea they used in their bubble tea.  The salesperson referred me to a particular black tea and I bought some to try at home.  But in general, I think you could use an English breakfast or any black tea as the base.  I'm using the tea leaves from the bag you see on the right side of the picture below for this bubble tea.
The salesperson also told me to use 1 teaspoon of tea leaves to each 8-oz. cup of tea.  I brewed 4 cups of tea for my batch of bubble tea and I decided to use 2 teaspoons per cup of water (8 teaspoons in total) since you want the tea to be strong enough to then add your milk and sugar and ice to.
After making it, I think I should've used even more tea, maybe about 3 teaspoons per cup, for a stronger flavor.  After brewing it, let it cool and place the tea in the refrigerator to get cold.  This way, we don't have to add a lot of ice later and dilute it even more.

Cooking the tapioca

There are many theories on how to cook and achieve that slightly chewy tapioca pearl and I'm sure there are many ways of doing it since you tend to get a different texture, even flavor, from different places.  

With the help of my sister, I came to learn that the instructions on my packet of DIY tapioca pearls were quite involved.  I was supposed to add the pearls to a big pot of boiling water, then transfer the contents to a rice cooker and cook for 50 minutes before adding more water and cooking for another hour before rinsing and covering them in honey.  Say what?!  I thought there had to be another way.  From reading online, most recipes seem to suggest cooking the pearls for about 25 minutes and then letting them soak in the pot, with the heat off, for another 25 minutes.  I decided to try it that way first.

Since I was aiming to make 2-3 servings, I used about half a cup of the tapioca pearls.  Bring a big pot of water to boil and add the pearls.  You want to use lots of water, about 8-10 cups, so the pearls have plenty of room to float and don't stick together.

Stirring occasionally to make sure the pearls are floating and separated, I tried cooking them for 25 minutes and then letting them soak in the pot, off heat, for another 25 minutes.  They were only about halfway done after this.  The center was still white and solid.
Long story short, I added about another 2 cups of boiling water and let the tapioca cook on medium high flame for another hour.  So all in all, you need to actively boil this type of tapioca (the one I bought anyway) for about 2 hours!  Luckily, the tapioca pearls came out very nicely after all that time investment.  They were cooked all the way through and had a little bit of a bite, or springiness, to them.  Rinse the pearls thoroughly in cold water using a mesh sieve.
While the tapioca is cooking, make a sugar syrup for the pearls to soak in.  This is to help give it a sweet flavor and can also be used to sweeten your drink.  I made a cup of sugar syrup using 1 cup of water, 1/2 cup of regular sugar, and 1/2 cup of brown sugar.  I think some restaurants and shops that sell bubble tea make a much thicker sugar syrup than what I've done here because I usually see a thick dark syrup and their drinks are much sweeter than what I ended up with.
I had more syrup than I needed so I reserved about half a cup to sweeten the tea and used the other half to soak the tapioca pearls.


Putting the bubble tea together:

Now the tea is sitting in the refrigerator and the mysteries of cooking the tapioca pearls have been unlocked.  But there are still different suggestions on how to put together the milk tea itself.  Do you use milk or cream?  Some say it's actually non-dairy creamer that should be used.  I learned that the "secret" to Hong Kong style milk tea was evaporated milk so I ultimately decided to sweeten my milk tea with the sugar syrup I made earlier and some evaporated milk. 
I used about a quarter cup of cooked tapioca pearls in each glass of bubble tea.  Sweeten the drink with the sugar syrup and evaporated milk to taste.  I added very little ice since my tea was already cold and because my tea was not as strong as I would've liked.
Finally, our homemade bubble tea was ready.  Plop in one of those wide straws and take a sip.  With enough sugar and evaporated milk, it really came very close to a good store bought version.  But honestly, it was a long road to get here...
Now I really appreciate the work it takes to make one of these drinks!  I'm really glad I did this "DIY" project but I'm not sure I'll be making it again.  I can see making a big batch for a large group but the process is a bit too involved to make just a couple of glasses.  I guess the shops won't be losing my business afterall.

Cheers!

*Update: Look what I found!  When I was shopping the other day at the same Asian grocery store, I saw this bag of black tapioca for bubble tea on their refrigerated shelves.  It says tapioca pearls ready in FIVE minutes.  For real?! That would save me about an hour and 55 minutes!  Maybe I just bought the wrong pearls.  The bag cost just $2 (not much more than the slow cooking ones I used) so I bought one to try at some point.  I'll post an update #2 when I get around to it but right now, I need a little "bubble tea-DIY" break. 

*Update #2 (May 16, 2012):  Hello there!  Well, I finally got around to trying the five-minute tapioca pearls you see in the bag above.  Bottom-line, it works.  In just a little over 5 minutes, you have cooked tapioca for your bubble tea.  At first, I actually thought the pearls were too soft but once out of the boiling water and into the sugar syrup, they firmed up a bit.  I would say the texture is not quite as good as the 2-hour version I originally made but that is more than offset by the time difference!
Tapioca pearls that cooked in roughly 5 minutes

I used more tea leaves in this batch of bubble tea I made today but the tea was still a bit weak.  If I do this again, I'd work on the tea end now that I have the tapioca part down.  So if you're looking to try this DIY project, look for the almost-instant cooking tapioca and go from there!


Recipe:

Bubble Tea

- For approximately three 12-oz. servings -

1/2 cup of black tapioca pearls (labeled for boba or bubble tea) - For the easiest bet, look for the kind that's labeled ready in five minutes
4 cups strong black tea, brewed and chilled*
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup evaporated milk

Wide bubble tea straws

Brewing the tea*:

Bring 4 cups of water to boil.  Brew the tea using 3 teaspoons of tea leaves per cup of water.  Or use about 3 teabags.  You want a dark tea since we will be adding milk, sugar, and a little bit of ice when we put the drink together.  Chill tea in the refrigerator.

Cooking bubble tea:

Cooking times vary significantly; follow instructions on your packet of black tapioca pearls.  (If none are available, bring a large pot filled with about 8 cups of water to a boil.  Add tapioca pearls and cook for 25 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Turn flame off and let pearls soak for another 25 minutes.  Taste test the tapioca pearls to see if they are cooked throughout.  If they are still hard in the center, turn the flame back up to medium-high and cook, checking occasionally and adding more water if necessary.  In my first case, the pearls were thoroughly cooked through after 2 hours, whereas there are five-minute varieties you can buy.)

While the tapioca pearls are cooking, make a sugar syrup.  Add granulated and brown sugar to 1 cup of water and boil until melted.  Set aside to cool.

When tapioca pearls are done, rinse under cold water and drain using a mesh sieve.  Soak the pearls in the sugar syrup.  You can reserve about half of the sugar syrup separately to sweeten your drink later.

Making bubble tea:

Place about 1/4 cup of cooked tapioca pearls into a glass.  Add chilled tea, evaporated milk and the sugar syrup made earlier to taste.  Add some ice, if desired.  Serve with a wide bubble tea straw and enjoy the fruits of your labor.

It is definitely best to cook the tapioca pearls and make the bubble tea right away.  I found that the pearls hardened like mini rocks after being in the refrigerator overnight.  You can heat them back up in their sugar syrup (microwave them for about 2-3 minutes) but the texture is still not quite the same.



8 comments:

  1. I've been looking for information on preparing boba -- this is so helpful! Thank you.

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  2. Thank you! I'm so happy you found it helpful!

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  3. Don't you think the 5 min tapioca have a chemical-after taste?

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  4. No...I can't say there was any off chemical aftertaste in the 5-minute boba that I tried.

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  5. wonder if you could make the long cooking ones in a crockpot.

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  6. I haven't tried it in a crockpot but it could work since the instructions on the package actually said to cook the boba in a rice maker. But it does require you cook them in boiling water first so it may need that initial boil on the stove. If you do use a crockpot, I would say make sure to check on it and add more water as necessary.

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  7. I think bubble tea is delicious and I will have to try this recipe very soon.

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    Replies
    1. I was really hooked on it for a while but haven't had it in so long! Hope your version turns out great! Thank you!

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