It’s less about how you cook and more about what kind of boba you’re buying.
I’m writing this post as a PSA for all likeminded non-Chinese-reading or -speaking bobaheads who have found the search for the perfect recipe as frustrating and inconclusive as I have. Little Bean in Rowland Heights makes my ideal bubbles — they’re soft but chewy, and springy between the teeth, so the first bite never tears all the way through.
(My friends Sarah and Claire remind me that “boba” is slang for big breasts in Taiwan. Draw whatever conclusions you want to about how that translates in terms of texture. According to the participants on Urban Dictionary, tapioca is referred to as “zen zu,” or pearls, in Taiwan.)
As much as I tried, I was never able to recreate it at home, and I was too sheepish to ask the lady at Little Bean how they made theirs. Some recipes call for soaking the beads. Some call for a long cook followed by a shorter steep. Some call for a rolling boil, while some call for a simmer. Some call for a 12-minute boil, others call for a whopping 35 minutes. Some insist that the rice cooker or slow cooker makes the difference.
I saved every recipe I could find. It’s amazing how many variations exist, and how incomplete they tend to be. Should I use lots of water, like pasta, or just enough water to soak up, like risotto? Should I add sugar during the cooking process or soak after? Should I rinse the beads or not?
I tried everything, but none of the methods were able to yield the texture that makes me crave boba. Sometimes the pellets would fall apart, leaving me with a beige sludge at the bottom of the bowl. Sometimes half the beads would cook through while the other half remained opaque and uncooked in the center.
It took some time before I realized that I was just buying the wrong brand. The problem was that I didn’t know what to look for.
What not to buy
The quality of product, and the properties for cooking, are wildly inconsistent with boba, more so than any other ingredient I can think of. For this most recent round of testing, I purchased boba from my local 99 Ranch, which you’d think would have the best possible selection of raw ingredients. Their dried foods aisle offered four options, of which I tried three:
WuFuYuan 5-minute tapioca pearls come in a 250g package for about $2.60 each. They’re nubbly and dark and look a little bit like The Thing (or, more specifically, Tobias Fünke’s Thing costume). They’re very light; if you drop one on the table, it bounces. They’re pretty good in a pinch, as they take about 12 minutes (to cook to my taste – 7 minutes rolling boil, 5 minute steep) instead of 60. But they have a tendency to get a little too chewy and dense once they hit cold liquid or ice. These are made in China.
The Kimbo brand “Starch balls” are about $1.30 for 200g. They’re made in Taiwan. After a long boil, half of the balls were raw and starchy in the center while the other half were slimy.
But I found that the worst were the Chang Chi tapioca balls, which are about $1.60 for 300g. These are made in Taiwan. I made the mistake of trying to soak 100g of these in a bowl of cold water. It took about 10 seconds for them to just burst open and disintegrate. It was like dropping a saltine into a bowl of chicken soup. For the second attempt, I got the water to a rolling boil before dropping the tapioca in. Many of the beads still fell apart and became mush with a soaked, spongy texture like tres leches cake. It was gross.
(The fourth brand looks pretty much like the Chang Chi and Kimbo, and was the cheapest, so I never tried it.)
One odd health note I learned about in the window of a nearby Taiwanese restaurant — on June 6, 2013, certain boba brands from Taiwan were recalled for having maleic acid in them, an additive that is not approved for food and could harm the kidneys. Here’s the FDA advisory.
The Aha! moment
Three packages later, I was back to square one. Then, after watching this YouTube video and following the link to Boba Store, I had a revelation — why didn’t my raw tapioca pearls look like those raw tapioca pearls?
The two brands of slow cook boba pearls I bought look like toasted fregola. They are dense and powdery spheres, often with one suntanned side and one light side (pictured left in the photo above). The ones in that video and site, as well as Nuts.com’s site, are sold in vacuum-packed packages. The big beads are evenly mocha brown throughout, with more dents and dimples in the shape, indicating a different texture and density (pictured right in the photo above). Why didn’t 99 Ranch have those for sale? Were they only available wholesale or could I find a package at a different Asian market in the area?
I went hunting, and at T S Emporium in Rowland Heights, I found what I needed.
This 1kg package of Bolle tapioca pearls was only $2.60. They had that even brown color I was looking for. And here’s the thing — the only starch listed in the ingredients is tapioca starch.
That fourth, untested brand I saw at 99 Ranch mysteriously listed only “starch” as the ingredient.
Meanwhile, the WuFuYuan quick-cook tapioca is full of chemfood ingredients like methylcellulose, guar gum, sodium hydrogen diacetate, and agar powder. (Maybe that’s why they are so weirdly bouncy.) The 5-minute boba became a lot less appealing once I learned that they’re a chemistry concoction and not just parboiled, as I had assumed at first.
I knew I was on the right track with the product. Now I had to figure out the right cooking method.
Why you shouldn’t presoak
Here’s what happens when you presoak. The three fragments on the right are a single Chang Chi pearl that exploded upon contact with the water. The pearl on the left is a Bolle tapioca pearl which isn’t breaking up, but it is dissolving in the water. I poked it with my finger and it just kind of melted on contact. These tapioca pearls are not like the kind you buy for pudding. They’re very soluble, and if you touch them when wet, they have a tendency to just disintegrate.
Why I don’t rinse after cooking
I don’t see the point in the after-cooking rinse. It gets the pearls cool, and that’s not what I want. One of the things I’ve learned from years of patronizing Little Bean is that the tapioca pearls lose their magical chewy tenderness when they get cold. However, bubble tea is always served cold (at least on the west coast). It’s a conundrum! Perfection can only be achieved when the warm pearls stay on the bottom of the cup, the cold liquid only joining the tapioca en route to your mouth in the fat straw highway. Keeping them segregated as much as you can preserves the texture for longer. I think that’s why you see so many boba tea joints serving their boba in rice cookers on keep warm or crockpots.
Anyhow, no rinse.
Why I don’t keep the pearls in their cooking liquid
I thought this was a good idea at first, but, like pasta water, the cooking liquid gets quite murky and unappealing. Better to drain that stuff off and store them in the syrup (which adds flavor, anyway).
Why the long cook
The Kitchn recipe recommended 12-15 minute boil + 12-15 minute steep. This is not enough for me — the results are far too chewy, especially after a few hours. I tried the 20 minute boil + 25 minute steep as written on the package and these were still too chewy in the middle.
But I came back to the Boba Guys recipe, which finally worked as it should work once I had the right product. I made some adjustments to suit my taste, so I’m writing them up below. I’m very, very, very satisfied with the results. I get the chew I want without sacrificing the silky springiness, and the pearls don’t seize up once they’re in an iced drink.
Storing your dry boba
I’m also finding that, once opened, the previously vacuum-packed pearls tend to evaporate moisture which condenses inside the bag and looks like it might court spoilage. You’re probably better off cooking and serving a big batch rather than trying to make a single package last all year. (I’ve read that you can freeze them, but I haven’t tried that yet.) (UPDATE: Yes! Once you’ve opened the package, freeze them. They cook up perfectly after being frozen, exact same method applies.)
So remember — look for pearls that use all tapioca starch, no substitutes. That’s it! They won’t necessarily be the most expensive brand; you have to read the ingredients list. I wasn’t able to find a supplier on Amazon that looked trustworthy. These pearls from Nuts.com get good reviews and look right, but the shipping will kill you. If you’ve got an Asian market in town, check there first.
The Perfect Boba Recipe
This recipe is adaptable for whatever amount you want to make, whether it’s just a few servings or enough to feed a crowd. It’s about 25 grams* of dry pearls per small serving (think small cup of boba tea).
tea or shake of choice
A big pot with a lid
A wooden spoon
Boil water like you would for pasta — lots of it (at least 10x the amount of water, so if you’re doing 100g, do 1000mL water). Once you’re at a rolling boil, weigh out your tapioca pearls (I cook in increments of 100g) and add the tapioca pearls to the water all at once. Stir. Let the water come up to a boil again; the pearls will float to the top. Once the water is boiling again, lower the heat to medium. Set a lid slightly ajar on top and cook for 35 minutes. Stir every five minutes. Turn the heat off. Cover completely and let the pearls steep for 25 minutes.
Drain the pearls. Do not rinse. For every 100 grams of dry pearls, add 50mL of the simple syrup. Let steep for at least 15 minutes. Serve right away or within a few hours. If you have leftovers, you can refrigerate them for a day, but you must microwave them for about 30 seconds before serving. (Alternatively, keep them warm in a rice cooker on the “Keep Warm” setting or a crockpot on the lowest setting, but don’t let them overcook. I haven’t tried rewarming on the stovetop, not sure if this would work.)
To serve: Place a few heaping tablespoons of warm tapioca pearls at the bottom of the cup. Add your beverage. Add your ice last. DO NOT SHAKE AROUND — boba texture suffers in the cold. Serve with a fat straw. Preen triumphantly.
Note: these are very, very soft when hot and fresh; they firm up after soaking in the syrup and once your cold drink has been added. If you want to serve these with a hot drink, I’d probably cut the cooking time back down to 25 minutes.
*Yeah, that’s right, I said grams. Use your scale. I am all about g and mL now. Here’s why.