This is a drink that originated in Taiwan in the 1980s and spread throughout Southeast Asia before finding its way to the U.S. Most of us think of bubble tea as being synonymous with boba tapioca pearls, but bubble tea was originally just a cold milk tea that was shaken until frothy. Sometimes boba were added, but basil seeds or cubes of jelly were also used.
You can find boba at almost any Asian grocery store or online. These marble-sized spheres are made from tapioca, just like the smaller pearls we use for tapioca pudding. They come in a range of colors, but all boba have a fairly neutral flavor. Once cooked, it's best to mix them with some sugar syrup — this gives them some sweetness and also helps preserve any pearls you're not using right away.
Boba are at their chewiest best if used within a few hours of cooking. However, the longer cooking method I outline below helps the boba stay soft and moist for several days if kept refrigerated in simple syrup. They will gradually start to harden and become crunchy in the middle. For a quick-fix bubble tea when you know you'll eat them right away, just boil the boba until they are soft, 5 to 10 minutes.
The sweet and creamy bubble teas you buy in the stores are usually flavored with special powders and sweetened condensed milk. You can buy these powders online, along with the boba themselves, but I think that boba made with regular tea and other more natural sweeteners are just as good. You only need to make one cup of strong tea — any tea of your choosing — and mix it with regular milk, almond milk, sweetened condensed milk, or fruit juice. A little simple syrup leftover from soaking the boba helps sweeten things up.
What's your favorite kind of bubble tea?
Makes 1 drink
dried boba tapioca pearls per serving (NOT quick-cooking boba)
tea bags per serving, any kind
Milk, almond milk, or sweetened condensed milk
Fruit juice or nectar (optional)
Bowl for holding the cooked boba
Combine the boba with water: Measure 2 cups of water for every 1/4 cup of boba being prepared into a saucepan. Bring the water to a boil over high heat. Add the boba and stir gently until they begin floating to the top of the water.
Cook the boba: Turn the heat to medium and cook the boba for 12 to 15 minutes. Remove the pan from heat, cover, and let the pearls sit for another 12 to 15 minutes.
Prepare the sugar syrup for the boba: While the boba are cooking, make a simple sugar syrup to sweeten and preserve them once cooked. Bring 1/2 cup of water to a boil over high heat on the stove or in the microwave. Remove from heat and stir in 1/2 cup sugar until dissolved. Set aside to cool.
Prepare a strong cup of tea: This can be done either while the boba are cooking or ahead of time. Allow enough time for the tea to cool completely before making the boba. Bring 1 cup of water to a boil. Remove from heat and add the tea bag (or bags); use one tea bag for regular-strength bubble tea or two for a stronger tea flavor. Remove the tea bag after 15 minutes and chill the tea.
Store the boba until ready to assemble: Once the boba have finished cooking, drain them from the water and transfer them to a small bowl or container. Pour the sugar syrup over top until the boba are submerged. Let sit until the boba are room temperature, at least 15 minutes, or refrigerate until ready to use. Boba are best if used within a few hours of cooking, but will keep refrigerated for several days. The boba will gradually harden and become crunchy as they sit.
Make the bubble tea: Pour the prepared tea into a tall glass and add the boba. Add milk for a creamy bubble tea, juice for a fruity tea, or leave plain and add a little extra water. Sweeten to taste with the simple syrup from soaking the boba.