This recipe for Homemade Tapioca Pearls (Boba) is simple to make with only 3 ingredients. These chewy, round spheres are a delightful addition to milk tea or fruit drinks.
This article first appeared on Sift & Simmer in May 2017. Updated April 2022.
If you've been around an Asian mall food court, you will have seen them: pastel-coloured drinks with neon-coloured wide fat straws sticking up and black mini spherical balls on the bottom.
What is bubble tea?
It's a tea-based drink consisting of tapioca pearls (more commonly known as "boba" in the States) and was invented in the late '80s in Taiwan.
The "bubbles" come from the foam that is produced by shaking the tea with ice.
Bubble tea was originally made with black tea, tapioca pearls, condensed milk/honey, but soon, different variations and mashups appeared.
Tapioca pearls are now commonly found in these bubble tea drinks.
What is tapioca?
Tapioca starch is a white starch derived from the cassava plant.
It is commonly used as a thickener, similar to cornstarch.
What are tapioca pearls?
Tapioca pearls are made from a mixture of tapioca starch and water.
The "dough" is rolled into small spherical balls.
Raw tapioca pearls are white and opaque, but turn translucent when cooked.
What do tapioca pearls taste like?
Cooked tapioca pearls have a squishy gelatin mouthfeel that are slightly chewy, with a texture similar to mochi or gummy bears.
Are tapioca pearls healthy?
As the pearls are mainly starch, they do pack a caloric punch with not much nutritional value.
However, they're fun to enjoy as an occasional treat.
Why this recipe works
This recipe for Homemade Tapioca Pearls comes together very simply with only 3 ingredients.
If you don't care about the dark colour of the boba pearls, you can omit the activated charcoal.
Adding the tapioca pearls directly into the brown sugar not only sweetens them but also streamlines the process.
They're such a great addition to Hong Kong milk tea.
Best of all, there are no artificial flavours, chemicals, or preservatives and it only costs pennies to make!
Ingredients you'll need
There are only 2 main ingredients to making tapioca pearls.
- boiling hot water: it's important that the water be *very hot*
- tapioca starch: is a white starch from the cassava plant; you can find tapioca starch in packages at Asian grocery stores; they're different than wheat starch, glutinous rice flour, or rice flour
I add an additional ingredient to make them dark/black in colour:
- activated charcoal
What is activated charcoal?
Activated charcoal is a powder primarily used for poisoning and helps to get rid unwanted toxins in the body.
It's made from burning coconut shells at a very high heat. You can find activated charcoal in health food stores.
It is purely optional and only used to colour the tapioca pearls.
How to use the charcoal
Just add ⅛ teaspoon activated charcoal to the tapioca starch and mix with the hot water.
How to make them
Add the brown sugar to a bowl or jar. Set aside (Step 1 below).
Measure out the tapioca starch into a bowl (Step 2 below).
Add in the activated charcoal (if using, optional).
Next, pour into the boiling hot water to the starch and mix with a spoon or spatula until a shaggy dough forms. (It may look dry at first. Don't add too much water at first or else your mixture will turn into a gooey mess). (Step 3 and 4 below)
Note: it's important that the water is hot, or the dough will not come together.
Use your hands to knead the dough until it becomes smooth, pliable and not chalky (similar to the texture of play-doh). (Step 5 below)
If the dough is a little too dry, add a little bit of water to it and knead until it comes together.
Conversely, if it's too wet, add a touch of tapioca starch. It should tacky and not too sticky.
Form the dough into a long rope about 1 cm in diameter, and use a dough scraper or sharp knife to cut into 1 cm pieces (Step 6 below).
Roll the pieces into 1 cm pearls with your hands. (The tapioca balls will expand slightly when cooked). (Step 7 below).
How to cook the pearls
In a small pot, bring 1 L of water to a rolling boil and add in the tapioca pearls.
Cook the pearls for 6-7 minutes, until they float to the top (Step 8 above).
Note: Be careful not to overcook or it will turn to mush. You still want a slight chew to the pearls.
Use a slotted spoon to remove pearls and place the cooked tapioca pearls into the brown sugar. Give the mixture a stir (Step 9 above).
Tapioca pearls are now ready to use in your drink of choice.
How to serve
My favourite way to enjoy it is in this CoCo-Inspired Egg Custard Bubble Tea.
Or try it in a fruit/slush or milk-based tea.
Alternatively, try it added to a sweet dessert such as Mango Pomelo Sago Pudding 楊枝甘露.
There are so many ways to serve tapioca boba pearls -- just let your imagination run!
How to store and reheat
Store the cooked homemade tapioca pearls in an airtight container.
If you're using the tapioca pearls on the same day, you can leave at room temperature for up to 4 hours.
You can store any excess tapioca pearls in the fridge.
Note: chilling the tapioca pearls will cause them to stiffen.
To reheat chilled tapioca pearls, place them in boiling water for a few minutes until softened before serving for optimal texture.
You can go wild with the colours and flavourings for these homemade tapioca pearls.
Try adding these natural colours and flavours:
- beet root powder: for red or pink pearls
- matcha: green
- butterfly pea flower: blue
- goldenberry: yellow
- pink dragonfruit: pink
Expert tips, troubleshooting & FAQs
My dough ended up like a gloopy mess
It's possible that you added too much water.
For next time, add the water in and feel the dough -- it should be tacky and not sticky.
The dough is dry and crumbly and won't form
Make sure that the water is boiling hot. If the temperature of the water is not hot enough, the dough will not form.
Why is there no water in the brown sugar syrup?
I found that straining the tapioca pearls and adding them right to the brown sugar (without water) created a stronger flavoured "syrup" -- and some of the residual water ends up dissolving the brown sugar anyhow.
How can I add additional flavour to the boba pearls?
You can leave the tapioca boba pearls to soak in the brown sugar syrup for a longer period of time, which will absorb more flavour.
For a tea twist on the tapioca pearls, add 1 black tea bag to the brown sugar and let the pearls soak in the brown sugar tea syrup.
Do I need to add the activated charcoal to the tapioca pearls?
No, you can omit the activated charcoal. The resulting tapioca pearls will be white.
Why do my tapioca pearls turn hard when added to fruit slushie?
Chilling the tapioca pearls in a frozen or icy drink will alter the the texture and make them stiff and hard.
I don't recommend adding tapioca pearls to cold frozen drinks.
Can I make a larger batch?
Yes, you can absolutely double the batch.
Can I freeze the tapioca pearls before cooking them?
You can freeze the tapioca pearls and then cook them from frozen.
Can I use cornstarch to make the boba pearls?
No, you cannot interchange or substitute the tapioca starch to make the pearls.
Other recipes you may like
Be sure to check out these recipes:
Be sure to let me know if you try my recipe -- tag me on Instagram @siftandsimmer or leave me a comment/rating below!
Homemade Tapioca Pearls (Boba) for Bubble Tea
For accuracy and precision in baking recipes, use weight (metric) measurements when available.
Brown Sugar ("Syrup")
- 2 tablespoon brown sugar
- 12 teaspoon tapioca starch
- 1 teaspoon activated charcoal optional
- 4 teaspoon boiling *hot* water must be boiling hot
- 1 L water for cooking the tapioca pearls
For visual step-by-step photos, refer to the body of the post.
Brown sugar "syrup:"
- Place brown sugar into a jar or small bowl. Set aside.
Make the tapioca pearls:
- Place tapioca starch into a bowl.
- Add in activated charcoal (if using, optional).
- Add boiling hot water to the tapioca starch. (Water must be hot or the mixture will not form).
- Stir the hot water quickly into the tapioca starch with a spoon or spatula until it becomes a shaggy dough.
- Use your hands to knead the dough until it becomes smooth and not chalky (similar to the texture of play-doh). (It may look dry at first. Don't add too much water at first or else your mixture will turn into a gooey mess).
- If the dough is a little too dry, add a little bit of water to it and knead until it comes together. Conversely, if it's too wet, add a touch of tapioca starch. It should tacky and not too sticky.
- Form the dough into a long rope about 1 cm in diameter, and use a dough scraper or sharp knife to cut into 1 cm pieces.
- Roll the pieces into 1 cm pearls with your hands. (The tapioca balls will expand slightly when cooked).
- Place the tapioca pearls onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or dusted with some tapioca flour.
Cook the tapioca pearls:
- In a small pot, bring 1 L of water to a rolling boil and add the tapioca balls into the boiling water.
- Cook the pearls for 6-7 minutes, until they float to the top. Be careful not to overcook or it will turn to mush. You still want a slight chew to the pearls.
- Use a slotted spoon to remove pearls and place the cooked tapioca pearls into the brown sugar. Give the mixture a stir.
- Tapioca pearls are now ready to use in your drink of choice.
The nutritional information provided should be considered as approximate and is not guaranteed. Please use your best judgment to ensure food is safely prepared and/or a good fit for your diet.