Most of us don’t appreciate tea as much as we should, instead putting it on the back burner in favor of coffee. But with access to so many different flavors, innovative blends and fun accessories, you’re missing out if you don’t delve a little deeper.
1. Tea 101
In order to be considered “true,” tea must contain some form of the tea plant, Camellia sinensis, which is native to China. Each category of true tea – from white to black and oolong to pu-erh – comes from the same plant; it’s the processing length and technique combined with the environment where each is grown that creates variations in aroma, flavor and strength.
White Tea: Easy to love, white tea is the least processed true tea. The leaves don’t undergo oxidation, which gives it a delicate, floral flavor that’s sweet and slightly earthy. White teas are usually low in caffeine as well, so drink up.
Green Tea: Like white tea, green tea is also kept from oxidizing for the most part, but it has a longer total production time. If the green tea in your cup hails from China, it’s roasted, giving it a toasted nutty flavor; if it hails from Japan, it’s most likely steamed, which results in a more verdant and herbal flavor. Japanese green tea is slightly sweeter and lighter than the Chinese variety.
Oolong Tea: Some oxidation gives oolong tea a darker color and stronger flavor compared to white or green teas, plus it activates natural fermentation, which lends complexity to the final product. Typically, oolong has a medium-bodied, floral flavor – great for those who like an assertive but not overpowering brew.
Black Tea: Black tea is oxidized, with the length of oxidation depending on the region and climate from which the leaves come. The flavor of each region’s tea embodies the location: Ceylon tea, produced in the highlands of Sri Lanka, tends to be full-bodied and chocolatey, while Darjeeling tea, grown and processed in West Bengal, India, is fruity, floral and less potent. Assam tea from Assam, India, is malty and complex, and Lapsang Souchong from Fujian, a southeastern Chinese province, is dried over pinewood, giving it a noticeably smoky aroma and flavor.
Pu-erh Tea: Pu-erh – the pride of China’s Yunnan Province – falls into two categories: raw and aged. Raw pu-erh has a flavor and body similar to traditional green tea with nutty or grassy overtones, while aged pu-erh is closer to black tea in depth and complexity. Processed in a way that encourages microbial fermentation after the leaves are dried, pu-erh ages more dynamically than any tea out there. It can be aged from 10 to 50 years, allowing flavors to develop and character to emerge over time.
Sometimes called tisanes, herbal teas don’t contain any Camellia sinensis. Instead, they’re composed of herbs, twigs, spices and dried flowers or fruits. Chamomile, hibiscus, jasmine, orange blossom, peppermint and pineapple peel are examples of herbal teas.
Flavored teas typically contain black or green tea blended with ingredients found in herbal tea to add flavor and complexity – think Earl Grey. They’ve become popular among tea-drinkers because they contain the caffeine kick of a true tea combined with the creative flavors of an herbal tea.
Some people think of these other teas as drinks rather than tea, but we won’t make that mistake.
Bubble Tea: Those mesmerizing balls of tapioca crowded together at the bottom of your cup can make you forget that bubble tea is tea itself. Black tea is usually used as the base for bubble tea, but white, green and oolong versions exist as well.
Kombucha: Streaking onto the scene as a natural, effervescent and healthy alternative to soda, kombucha starts as black or green tea. The tea is combined with sugar and SCOBY (a rubbery, living, solid mass of bacteria and yeast that aids in the fermentation of the tea) to create the final product.
Masala Chai: Don’t confuse this with chai, which is simply black tea mixed with milk. Masala means “spice” in Hindi, and masala chai is made by boiling black tea in milk and water with a mixture of aromatic herbs and warm spices such as black pepper, cardamom, ginger and star anise.
Matcha: Matcha is a high-grade green tea that’s processed and then pulverized into a feathery powder. You whisk it into water instead of steeping it, or you can use it to add flavor and color to recipes.
2. Kettle Down, Everyone
On a blustery winter night, can you think of a more comforting sound than the whistle of a fresh pot?
Other Essential Tea Tools
Dedicated teaspoon. No one wants to search for that one perfect measuring spoon every time they want a cup of tea. Keep a specific teaspoon with your loose-leaf tea so you never have to waste time digging through kitchen drawers.
Infuser mug. Brew loose-leaf tea anywhere with an infuser mug – a mug with a mesh basket to hold the tea leaves and a lid to keep things hot. Look for them in glass, porcelain and stainless steel.
Kitchen scale. No kitchen should be without a digital kitchen scale, period. If you don’t have one, now’s the time to get it because you’ll need it to measure loose-leaf. You can get a good-quality kitchen scale for less than $20.
Matcha whisk. This might seem like a single-use gadget, but it isn’t. If you like matcha, it’s a must-have to properly incorporate the powder, but you can also use the whisk to blend other teas such as masala chai and turmeric tea.
Tea filters. Similar to paper coffee filters but smaller and shaped like a bag, tea filters keep those loose leaves in place as you brew. Unfortunately, tea filters are single-use, so you don’t want to regularly rely on them, but they can help out in a pinch if you’re somewhere where you can’t clean and dry a brew basket.
Tea organizer. Once you get into tea, it’s hard to keep things organized. Enter the tea caddy, which keeps tea fresh and handy.
Tea strainer/brew basket. If you’re not willing to replace your favorite mug with an infuser mug, buy a tea strainer or brew basket to let your leaves breathe and the water do its thing.
Tea timer. Not all teas brew at the same speed: Delicate teas might need just a minute or two, while black, herbal or flavored teas need five minutes or so. Time it with a tea timer, which will give you optimal flavor for whatever you’re into.
3. Tea Party
Tea leaves work wonders on hot water, but don’t underestimate their equally appetizing effect on food. Loose-leaf tea effortlessly adds oomph to a wide array of drinks, dishes and desserts – you just have to know how to work with them.
The Steep. To add your favorite tea flavors to liquids such as drinks, glazes, soups and broths, steep the leaves in hot water as you normally would, adjusting the strength according to how much tea flavor you want to impart on a specific recipe. Brew a double-strength tea to add to smoothies, glazes and frozen desserts, including ice pops and sorbets, or steep directly into hot liquids such as simple syrups or cream for dairy-based sauces and treats.
The Grind. In some cases, you’ll need to use dry tea leaves rather than a prepared liquid – that’s where grinding comes into play. By grinding tea leaves in a spice grinder, you reduce them to a powder, which you can add to rubs or marinades, dips, egg dishes and fresh pasta. Is grinding essential? Not at all! Sometimes it depends on what you’d like to achieve. Whole leaves in a compound butter or crust will yield a speckled, striated look, while ground leaves will likely change the color of the final product and disperse the leaves more uniformly.
For some dishes, including oatmeal and baked goods such as brownies, cookies, quick breads and pound cake, whether you steep or grind the tea leaves is really up to you. Cooking grains or beans in brewed tea yields incredible results, but adding ground leaves to stock will pack a bigger punch. See? It just depends. Consider the recipe, how much tea flavor you want and which method works better from a technical standpoint.
The glaze in this recipe is fantastic, but I encourage you to think of it as a foundation for experimentation. Explore different flavors by picking a tea and pairing it with a fruit juice. Big Heart Tea’s Cup of Sunshine featuring organic turmeric and organic ginger with orange juice, for example, would be fantastic, or the brand’s Malawi Roasted Green (a single-origin green tea) would pair beautifully with pomegranate juice. My only other advice is that if you choose a lighter tea, brew it on the strong side to bring out the flavor.