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Today, I tried 3 different ways to make boba/tapioca pearls from scratch, and while the third time sort of worked I never got a "dough" that was of a playdoh consistency.

In reading several articles/recipes on the internet:

All use moderately different techniques, the essential technique appears to be:

  • Mix hot water and tapioca starch together, in approximately correct proportions, and you will get a playdoh-like doh.

All three of our attempts were with boiling water with brown sugar, and varying degrees of tapioca.

The first two were horrible non-newtonian liquid pieces, that were impossible to form. i.e. once we stopped applying pressure they oozed everywhere but had zero pliability.

Our third attempt, we let the brown sugar and water boil for a while (but not to a syrupy consistency) and that seemed to do better. It was manipulatable, but definitely NOT "playdoh" like consistency. Additionally, after about 10 minutes it was hard as a rock. We found 10 seconds in the microwave helped make it moderately pliable again, but again, nothing close to the consistencies we were seeing described or observed in the videos.

I'd like suggestions on how to improve. Various thoughts that have come to mind include:

  • Is there something wrong with our general approach here?
  • Are there "known" techniques for getting the right consistency?
  • Heat is pretty clearly important, is it just heat, or do proportions matter? Are there "sweet spots" in ratios of ingredients?
  • Does heating a partially dissolved starch help? Some recipes do that, some don't. I haven't found a clear discussion of how different techniques help/hinder the process.
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  • I'm not really much of a cook, but all I would suggest is to measure the amounts to get the consistency you want, and maybe adjust it if necessary. May 25 at 12:44
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    @DerrickWilliams, the point of the question is, I've already done that and failed. I will try again, but I'd like my next attempt to be better informed.
    – John
    May 25 at 13:20
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I visited some Chinese language websites, and it seems that there really isn't any magic here. Since their recipe is basically the same as the first one you linked to, I won't post any links here. I've never made tapioca balls, but the technique used here is a technique common in Chinese cooking called "hot dough" (tangmian 烫面), which I often use.

The water mixture (syrup?) must be consistent and boiling hot, so boiling the mixture for a while might be a wise choice. Also, stir quickly and well. This might explain why your first two attempts failed: the phrase to remember here is starch gelatinization, and if your water-starch mixture doesn't stay hot enough, there wouldn't be enough gelatinization there.

It's usually better to err on the side of too much water (but of course, not way too much), as you can add starch to get the desired consistency.

Also, you are not supposed to leave it there for 10 minutes; it is normal for the dough to become hard after a while. You are supposed to make the tapioca balls from the dough _right away. Yes, it would be hot, so it would be wise to wear gloves. If you really need to leave it to cool down, covering the dough with a hot wet kitchen towel might help.

Once you craft your bobas, it would be just fine to leave it to harden. It might be wise to cover your bobas with (raw) tapioca powder to prevent sticking.

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  • "Stir quickly and well" Can you expand on that point? As that point had been made in some of my references, I thought I did that the same both times. Presumably this is to facilitate the starch gelantinization?
    – John
    May 27 at 13:26
  • Yes, I believe the purpose is to let the hot water mix with the starch thoroughly and quickly, without cooling down too much.
    – xuq01
    May 27 at 13:36

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