Boba Tea: Drinking a break or breaking for a drink

To my boba ladies – SN, SH, HK

I need a break.  It’s always at the end of the year – the months of May and June where I feel my tension rise at rapid rates and the desire to scream comes far more often than it should.  It’s the season of schedule changes, camp signups, changes in students, preparation for vacation, and all in all the complete mish mash of tasks that I have before me.  (I’m not counting the regular stuff that still needs to get done in all this.)

I admit that I easily get overwhelmed at this time and find myself wanting to crawl somewhere to try and catch my breath – as if that would even be possible.  But still.  I think about it.  I don’t often do it, but I do think about it.
I’ve found, however, that making boba tea helps me.  It’s kind of counterintuitive as I’m amping my body full of caffeine and sugar and carbs, but something in the process helps me calm down.  I don’t know if it’s the kind of precise detail required in making boba, or if it’s the fragrance of the tea, or perhaps it’s simply that the kids start getting mellow when they learn that I’ll be making them boba.  Whatever the case, boba making calms me down and it’s an excuse to have friends over to drink and chew with me.
In case you’re unfamiliar boba or bubble tea, I’ll simply just say it’s like drinking something and having something to chew while you drink.  Some of my non-boba fans have described the texture of the tapioca pearls, or boba, as being similar to gummy bears.  One even mentioned it was like drinking tea while chewing flavorless gummy bears.  I’ll assure you it’s way better than that, although some people may  take some time to getting used to it.  
These days, it seems that bubble tea shops or boba tea shops are popping up everywhere, with lines that go out the door.  I’ll admit, in the early days of my quest to do this boba thing at home, I was frustrated and I thought to myself that having boba made by someone else was well worth it.  I feel much less that way now, as I’ve been working on my boba tea practice and method and I’ve gotten it down to a pretty decent science, at least a science that works for me.  I find my home method offers me more flexibility in tea flavors, a freedom from artificially flavored syrups with their artificial colors, and an ability to control the sweetness level and how it’s sweetened.  I can use higher quality cream (like organic cream instead of non dairy creamer) and I can reduce the amount of waste in that I use glass mason jars instead of disposable plastic cups.  The straws I still haven’t figured out how to get around, but I think glass jars are a dramatic improvement.
I divide the work of boba tea into two tasks – make boba and make tea.  I like to focus on one and do the other afterwards.  Boba requires time, an hour of it, and it’s important to time this hour well.  Tea requires precision of time – oversteep your tea, and no matter how much sugar you try and add to fix your error, you can’t.  I know this from experience.  

Making the Tapioca Pearls
The most important element of this is finding THE RIGHT PEARLS.  My own personal struggle to source these darn cassava root balls (you read that correctly – cassava root) has led me down several roads of extreme frustration.  I couldn’t find them in a search of 7 Asian grocery stores in the Bay Area, so I turned to online sources.  There are plenty of online sources, but the shipping tends to be fairly hefty unless you luck out and find one on Amazon prime, which is what I’ve been able to do a couple of times.  However, brands that are reputable and have a following (despite their lower rating on Amazon) are:

Tea Zone Boba (which is used at some of the tea shops around the nation)

Bolle Boba – I’ve heard that some Asian markets on the east coast sell this.

Possmei – this is the brand I’ve been using, and I snatch it up when it’s available on Amazon Prime.

Do not bother with “instant” boba pearls (ones that take 5 minutes or less) because quite simply, they aren’t the same thing at all.  Those have other starches in them (namely potato) and they won’t give you the springy proper boba texture you are looking for.  A great blog post which basically goes through all the boba brands you shouldn’t be buying is this one.

This process takes 60 minutes.  Not 55 or less.  60 minutes.  I’ve heard of rice cooker methods and microwave methods, but I think the best method is boiling.

How to make boba pearls
2 cups of uncooked boba pearls
12 cups of water
1/3 cup of honey

The nature of these boba pearls is that they crumble easily.  Take time to sift out some of the crushed pearls powder so that the cooking liquid doesn’t become too thick.

In a large pot, bring 12 cups of water to a rolling boil.  Once water is boiling, add all at once 2 cups of boba pearls.  Gently, with a spatula or wooden spoon, give a slow stir to help the boba not all stick to the bottom.  Within a 20 seconds, most of the boba should float up to the top.  I know you’re thinking that these brown balls don’t look like the black boba that you’re used to, but they will be transformed in their hot water bath.

Once the water begins to boil again, reduce heat to a low boil and allow boba to cook for 30 minutes. Stir every 8 minutes or so, to make sure the boba isn’t sticking to the side.  

Once boba has cooked for 30 minutes, turn off the heat, and allow the boba to sit in the hot water for another 30 minutes.

After boba has soaked in hot water, drain boba and give it a super quick rinse with water.

Place boba in a large bowl and pour honey over.  The heat of the boba should help make the honey loosen so that it can coat all the boba.  Add more honey if you like things sweeter.  The boba should be good, for about 5 hours at room temperature.  The longer they sit, the harder and less jewel like they become, so I find that cooking the boba and using them within a few hours the best.  (This is why boba places have to continuously make their boba.)

Isn’t it gorgeous?  Now you’re ready to make your tea!

Making Tea
My favorite thing about making boba at home is being able to custom make my teas.  With large mason jars, you actually have a ton of flexibility in making individual boba flavors.  I’ve made large pitchers of tea and used tea bags in the proper proportion to make large amounts of tea, but the mason jars open up your boba tea flavors to a ton of possibilities.

Because mason jars can handle variations in heat, you can just steep tea for the appropriate number of minutes and sweeten with honey (or your choice of sweetener) and boba and your ice.  Ever notice that the boba tea you drink is never SUPER icy cold?  It’s because boba doesn’t react well to super cold.  Generally speaking ice is added to the top and then you shouldn’t mix your drink up, otherwise your boba will lose texture.

The last few times I had some friends over for boba tea, I allowed them to select their tea options.  I poured honey in the bottom (about a tablespoon) and got the tea bags ready.  If you are going to add cream to your tea, I recommend doing a double bag of tea, but if you’re going to go with a lighter version without cream, I think a single bag is fine.  My current favorite is the Stash double bergamot earl grey finished with honey, cream and boba.  WOWZA!!!  Without cream, my favorite is Tazo Green Ginger.  For the kids, I’ve tried this  with herbal versions of tea (no cream) and they love it!

I pour hot water into the mason jars (about 3/4 full) and allow it to steep for the appropriate amount of time.  DO NOT OVER STEEP.  I actually set timers because I’m always oversteeping.

Then I remove the tea bags, give a quick stir.

When I’m ready to serve, I drop a few good heaping spoonfuls of cooked boba and they sink to the bottom.  On top I add ice.

If anyone wants cream (particularly with the chai, early grey, and English breakfast cream is great) I can add that as a finish.

Pop a straw.  Drink.  It.  All.  (I’m kind of a poet.)  Be creative and have a ball!

As a final suggestion, boba isn’t just for tea.  It can be for smoothies as well.  My kids love their water melon juice with some boba at the bottom.  The main drawback of this is that super chilled watermelon changes the texture of the boba much more quickly than the tea does.  But if you drink it fast, you won’t even notice it.

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