First, what is Bubble Tea?
If you are new to Bubble Tea, you’ll be disappointed to learn (as I did) that there are no bubbles in bubble tea. The tea is made from tea (har car), along with fruit, coffee, milk, and some chewy pearls in the cup.
The bubbles refer to the milk froth that is created when the drink is shaken before serving it to you.
Some sellers called their bubble tea “Boba Tea” but as far as I can tell, it is the same product. “Boba” comes from an informal Taiwanese word for the pearls. Apparently, the popular drink originated in Taiwan, though other tea companies claim that they give birth to it.
Okay, okay, I know what Bubble Tea is. But is it gluten free?!?!?
As anyone who avoids gluten knows, to make the determination that something is safe to consume, you have to examine the ingredients of the product carefully. Here’s the rundown of what a typical Bubble Tea drink might contain (from an actual Bubble Tea recipe for Frozen Milk Wintermelon Bubble Tea):
- 16 oz Ice
- 16 oz milk
- Cooked Tapioca Pearls
- 2 oz Wintermelon Syrup
To make this Bubble Tea, put the ice and milk in a blender, and blend until smooth. Get your glass, and put the cooked pearls and syrup in the bottom. Pour in your blended ice and milk, then stir (or shake) and consume.
The Ice and the Milk are pretty easy to trouble shoot. No gluten there, in general. Just Ice, Milk, and the sweet Syrup. But what about the tapioca pearls?
Are Tapioca Pearls gluten free?
You can purchase Tapioca Pearls online, or in groceries stores. If you want to get “authentic” pearls from an Asian company, you are welcome to, but it will be hard for you to scrutinize the ingredients label on the product if you can’t read the characters!
Bob’s Red Mill produces Small Pearl Tapioca (you might want to big pearls for your Bubble Tea), but it is a good example (and the label is in English).
Bob’s Red Mill lists the only ingredient in the small pearl tapioca product as “Tapioca”. Tapioca is a starch extracted from the cassava root.
In my review, I have found that tapioca balls also also made from sweet potato powder, potato powder, coconut, or even jelly. Some stores sweeten their pearls with honey, or add other products that would turn off people who are trying to eat vegan.
In most cases, it appears that the ingredients for tapioca pearls do not contain gluten, though the true freedom of the product from gluten will depend upon how aggressive the company is about separating the product from other products in production that contain gluten. It is fairly common that companies which grind up cassava root into tapioca flour also use the same equipment to grind and mill rye, barley and wheat.
Does this mean that if I order a drink at a Bubble Tea store, it will be gluten free?
No, we can’t guarantee this. If you are out and about, and you want to order a gluten free Bubble Tea drink, you’ll want to look at the menu carefully for drinks that don’t involve gluten. Troubleshoot the menu, and then ask careful questions about the ingredients in the drink that you do want to order.
Some Bubble Tea drinks contain barley, which contains wheat gluten. The servers at the shop might not understand what gluten is (especially if language is a barrier to really effective communication). If you ask about gluten, they will say “no” but then if you ask about barley, they will say “yes.” Ask in every case about whether your drink contains barley.
I shouldn’t have to say this, but avoid anything that contains cookie crumbs.
Be advised that some ingredients that don’t appear to have gluten in them (such as Japanese green tea) can contain small amounts of gluten, not always purposefully, but as a contaminant. The servers at the shop may honestly and truthfully believe that the product contains no gluten, and through no fault of their own, their drink might actually contain gluten.
Unfortunately, this is a frequent experience for those who suffer from gluten intolerance or celiac disease. As usual, my recommendation is that you do everything to verify that the drink is gluten free, and don’t trust the statements of the shop if they don’t seem to understand what you are trying to find out or why you want to know. You can also ask around to other members of your gluten-free community to see if anyone else has ordered something there and what their experience was.
The Best Way to Drink Gluten Free Bubble Tea is to Make Your Own
Bubble Tea is actually really easy to make! Honestly, the hardest part of the drink is the tapioca pearls, which you can purchase or you can make from scratch.
To make tapioca pearls from scratch, here’s what you need to do:
Assemble your ingredients:
- 9 tsp tapioca flour (or tapioca starch)
- 3 tsp boiling water
- 3 cups of water in a sauce pan
- 1 cup of brown sugar
- Put 3 cups of water in the sauce pan and bring it to a boil
- Place tapioca (starch or flour) in a bowl
- When you are ready, quickly put 3 tsp of the boiling water into the flour bowl, and start mixing asap
- Mix until the flour and water mixture starts to firm up into dough
- Keep Mixing and kneading the dough with your hands until it is malleable (like playdough)
- Add about 3/4 of the one cup of brown sugar to the boiling water, and stir it until dissolved
- Take a small amount of the dough and roll it between your hands until it forms a skinny snake (your kids will love to help you do this)
- Cut the snack with a small knife into the size pearls you want (pea sized, marble sized, your pick)
- Drop the pearls into the boiling sugar water. They will first sink down to the bottom, but as they cook, they will rise to the top
- It should take about 15 minutes for the pearls to cook, though the size of the pearls will make a difference. Stir them constantly, and check them every few minutes to see how close to done they are.
- You may have to make the pearls a few times to get them to the consistency and texture that you like. Remember, the pearls firm up after you finish cooking them, so you might have to overcook them a little bit to get the texture you like in your Bubble Tea drink. Some people say to look for air bubbles throughout the who pearl as a good indicator of done-ness.
- Once they are done, you can store them in the fridge mixed up with your chosen simple syrup.
When you make tapioca pearls on home, they don’t come out black. Cooking the pearls in brown sugar doesn’t make them the pretty dark color. I suspect that the black pearls are black because of food colorings or other additives that are not disclosed on the label. No one likes mystery chemicals, and this is another place where inadvertent gluten can make it into your drink! Yet another reason to make tapioca pearls at home.
If you don’t feel like making the tapioca dough from scratch, you can make the pearls at home from a package (where the pearls are dried and already formed into balls. Just look for premade balls that don’t have any food coloring or other flavored additives.
Other Gluten Free Bubble Tea Ingredients
After you have 100% gluten free tapioca pearls, it will be on you to assemble other gluten free ingredients. If you want to have tea in your Bubble Tea, you’ll use your favorite and trusted teas.
If you want to use sweet flavored syrups, you can purchase them or make your own!
Other common ingredients of Bubble tea include:
- half and half
- black tea
- green tea
- simple syrup
- fruit purees
- fresh fruit
- mung bean paste
- egg pudding
What’s your favorite Bubble tea drink? Leave us a comment with your favorite drink (or recipe).
And before you go, check out one of these great articles from our amazing Mom Advice Line Community:
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