Coffee or tea? A splash of cultural baggage comes with that choice offered by banquet servers who tote a carafe of “caf” in one hand and “decaf” in the other. The tea might arrive later, or it might not. If it does, chances are good that a) it was brewed through the machine used for coffee, or b) it comes with a tea bag afloat in tepid water.
Tea is the second-most-consumed beverage in the world after water. But it is a second-class citizen in our nation of hot-liquid drinkers, no matter how much the tea numbers are trending upward. That’s surprising, considering that tea – green as well as black – was the go-to refreshment in America long before colonists dumped 340 chests of it into Boston Harbor. Contrary to popular opinion about a patriotic grudge that sent people on a coffee quest, they kept drinking tea after the Revolutionary War; they still had the pots and brewing paraphernalia.
These days, the tea bag rules here and in England. Problem is, it’s the coffee equivalent of instant granules. We can do better, America.
Nonetheless, Bruce Richardson sees progress. “We are enjoying a tea renaissance right now,” says the author of 14 books on tea and the owner of a tea wholesale business in Danville, Ky. (Also bullish: Starbucks, hence its 2012 acquisition of the robust Teavana chain.) He is convinced that 20-year-olds are getting hip to leaves, coming in to sample single-plantation varieties and blends at his tea bar. “They appreciate the health aspects. … When they want to stay up late to read, they should be drinking tea,” not coffee, he says.
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Perhaps that’s because of tea’s comparatively mild jolt. Typical brewed black tea contains about one-third the caffeine found in coffee (55 vs. 150 milligrams in an 8-ounce serving), yet there’s a contradiction in the cup, as Richardson puts it. True Camellia sinensis, or tea leaves processed differently to create black, oolong, white and green tea, contains L-theanine, an amino acid that helps the brain to simultaneously relax and concentrate. In other words, a little buzz with focus. No wonder tea drinkers feel good about pouring four to six cups per day.
Ask a coffee aficionado what he doesn’t like about tea, and the response might be the same as when the question is turned around for a tea lover: bitterness. Although the reasons for bitter coffee are various, the cause of bitter tea is more likely a matter of oversteeping, which might entail using water that’s too hot as well as letting the infusion go on too long.
Which leads back to the tea bag, really. Ever since its invention in early 20th-century America, the tidy packet has simplified tea making. Hands-on prowess with loose-leaf tea has become rare – akin to the midcentury era when Americans’ embrace of convenience foods begat a decline in their kitchen acumen. And the quality of the tea in the bags has been unreliable.
Tea brewed via tea bags accounted for more than 65 percent of all tea consumed in the United States in 2012, according to the Tea Association of the USA.
“I just don’t get it,” says Linda Neumann, co-owner with Michelle Brown of the four Teaism shops in the Washington area. “I think if more people took the time to steep and strain instead of dunk and dash, the world would be a better place.”
Not a surprising position for her to take, given Teaism’s exclusive trade in loose-leaf teas and tisanes, which are herbal infusions (not real tea). However, quality is at the heart of the matter. What’s in tea bags “doesn’t come close to the quality of loose-leaf tea. It’s just not of value,” Neumann says. Walk into their Alexandria, Va., restaurant and shop, for example, and you can plunk down $15 for a mere 2 ounces of Jinzhen, a Chinese black tea with golden-tipped leaves and a light chocolate aroma in its brew. That works out to about 80 cents a cup. Affordable.
“People think loose-leaf tea is too hard,” she says. “But tea is really very simple.”
Tea has been closely associated with medicinal use and health benefits for centuries. In the past decade or so, consumers have sought out green tea, drawn to its antioxidant properties and studied ability to help prevent cardiovascular disease. So it stands to reason that the full potential of loose-leaf green tea would be preferable to tea bags that can contain little more than tea “dust,” or fannings.
Still, the tea has to taste good to keep you interested day after day, which is why sampling and reading descriptions that act like wine shelf talkers will go a long way toward your personal tea education. There are blends with winelike complexity. Committed tea drinkers will go with an eye-opening black tea in the morning and midafternoon, then switch to something milder, decaffeinated or herbal – officially a tisane, not tea – in the evening.
Getting familiar with tea-brewing basics is key. Black tea is steeped with hotter water than green tea, and each type of tea has a recommended range of steeping times. A good tea shop will include specifics on each package, so there’s no need to commit the information to memory.
Experts prefer stainless-steel strainers with deep wells rather than tea balls or chambered teaspoons so the loose-leaf tea has more room to expand or bloom as it steeps, for optimum flavor. Some teakettles have markings that allow for matching water temperature to tea variety. Travel tumblers and cups for the office sport built-in strainers designed to sit on built-in resting pads.
And there is an acceptable alternative to the commercial tea bag: filling your own. Look for individual, biodegradable tea filters made of simple porous paper that are long enough to drape over the edge of a cup. They take seconds to put together. Pyramid-shaped tea sachets (also biodegradable) are gaining in popularity, as well – a good choice that allows the leaves some room to steep.
How-to: Steeping loose-leaf teas
Different teas call for different water temperatures and steeping times.
Included are resting times (after the water has come to a boil), and an old-fashioned guide to the look of the boiled water.
BLACK TEA (not including Darjeeling)
205 to 212 degrees
3 to 5 minutes
No resting time
A constant stream of large, swirling bubbles
200 to 205 degrees
2 1/2 to 4 minutes
Bubbles connected to one another in a steady stream
170 to 180 degrees
2 to 3 minutes
Water bubbles the size of crab eyes, vertical wisps of steam
160 to 170 degrees
30 seconds to 1 minute
Pinhead-size bubbles, barely visible steam
180 to 190 degrees
3 to 5 minutes
Pearl-size bubbles, good amount of steam
180 to 200 degrees
3 to 5 minutes
1- to 2-minute rest
Pearl-size bubbles, good amount of steam
5 to 10 minutes
No resting time
A constant stream of large, swirling bubbles
Source: “Modern Tea: A Fresh Look at an Ancient Beverage,” by Lisa Boalt Richardson (Chronicle, 2014)
Factors in brewing a good cup of tea
1. GO LOOSE-LEAF
The tea in commercial tea bags is often inferior to loose tea leaves and provides less flavor and value/more bitterness. So use a strainer (read on) or create your own custom tea bags, as with TeaBrew Filters ($6.75 per 100). Widely available.
2. FRESHNESS COUNTS
Some experts say it’s best to buy loose-leaf tea in 2-ounce amounts, so you’ll refresh your supplies in a timely manner. The tea should be kept away from heat, light and moisture; a Japanese paper-wrapped container holds that amount ($14). www.teaism.com
3. PER-CUP STEEPING
Ideally, loose-leaf tea needs room to expand in hot water, so a deep-welled, stainless-steel strainer is the best choice. One model (For Life, $12.75) has a handle that allows it to fit across a variety of cups as well as a dish to rest the strainer in. And a travel tea mug (HighWave, $26) comes with its own strainer. Both available at Teaism.
4. IN HOT WATER
Some electric teakettles have controls that allow for heating at below-boiling temperatures, which is desirable for some white, oolong, green and herbal (tisane) teas. Monitor your just-boiled water with an instant-read thermometer.
5. TIME THE BREW
Some teas take longer than others to steep. Use a kitchen timer or the stopwatch function on your smartphone.
Green Tea-Infused Veggie Stuffing
8 to 16 servings (Makes about 16 cups)
For the vegetable mixture
4 cups water (for cooking the fresh spinach)
1 1/2 pounds fresh spinach, tough stems discarded (may substitute 2 cups defrosted chopped spinach, squeezed until dry)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 cups coarsely chopped yellow onions
1 small fennel bulb, cored and coarsely chopped (1 cup)
1 tablespoon minced garlic
5 ounces shiitake mushrooms, coarsely chopped
28 ounces canned artichoke quarters (packed in water), drained and coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons dried green mint tea (loose-leaf or taken from tea bags; may substitute your favorite green loose-leaf tea)
For the stuffing
12 to 14 cups homemade or store-bought plain croutons
2 cups strongly brewed green mint tea (may substitute your favorite green loose-leaf tea)
4 ounces soft goat cheese, preferably with herbs
8 ounces chilled brie (rind discarded), cut into small chunks
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon fresh marjoram leaves
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1 1/2 cups whole or low-fat milk
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 cup plain panko breadcrumbs
1 cup freshly grated pecorino-Romano cheese
For the vegetable mixture: Combine the water and half of the spinach in a large pot over medium-high heat. Once the liquid comes to a boil and the spinach begins to wilt, add the remaining half of the spinach. Cook, stirring, until just wilted but still bright green. Drain, pat dry and coarsely chop.
Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the onions and fennel; cook, stirring occasionally, for about two minutes or until they have softened and the onions are starting to pick up color. Stir in the garlic; cook for four minutes or until fragrant and softened.
Stir in the mushrooms; cook for about eight minutes or until they have released their moisture, then add the artichokes and dried tea, stirring to incorporate. Turn off the heat; let the mixture cool in the pan.
For the stuffing: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Grease a large roasting pan with cooking oil spray.
Place the croutons in a very large, wide mixing bowl. Pour the brewed tea over them and toss to coat, then add the goat cheese, brie, salt, pepper and the marjoram and thyme leaves, stirring gently to incorporate.
Add the cooked vegetable mixture; stir gently to incorporate.
Whisk together the milk, eggs and lime juice in a large liquid measuring cup. Pour over the stuffing-vegetable mixture, stirring gently to incorporate.
(At this point, the mixture can be packed into a freezer-safe pan, wrapped and frozen for up to one week. Defrost completely in the refrigerator before it hits the oven.)
Transfer to the roasting pan; you don’t have to be too careful about packing down the mixture into an even layer, but you do want to spread it into the corners. Cover tightly with aluminum foil; roast for about 45 minutes, then uncover and sprinkle the panko and pecorino cheese on top. Roast for 10 to 15 minutes or until lightly browned on top.
Serve warm or let it cool, cover and refrigerate for up to three days.
NOTE: Use twice the amount of green tea (2 teaspoons per 8 ounces) when brewing the 2 cups of tea needed here; it acts like a concentrate.
Based on a recipe at TheTeaSpot.com
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 2/3 cups warm water
1 1/3 cups fine-grain plain, dried couscous
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar, plus more for optional garnish
1/8 teaspoon orange flower water
Scant 1/2 cup golden raisins
Ground cinnamon, for garnish
8 to 12 large pitted dates, preferably Medjool, for garnish
Scant 1/2 cup skinned/sliced or slivered almonds, toasted, for garnish
4 cups cold whole milk, for serving
Stir the sea salt into the warm water in a liquid measuring cup until the salt has dissolved. Place the couscous in a wide, shallow bowl and sprinkle it evenly with the salted water. Let it sit for 15 minutes, undisturbed, then check the grains; they should be tender and not mushy.
Use your hands to work in the butter, sugar and orange flower water until they have effectively disappeared, then blend in the raisins.
Use your hands to mound the couscous on a serving dish without packing it tightly or pressing it down. Sprinkle with the cinnamon and a little extra sugar, if desired, or use the two to create thin, decorative lines starting from the top of the mound. Arrange the dates and almonds around or on the couscous.
Serve with bowls of the milk, for spooning over individual portions.
NOTE: Toast the nuts in a small dry skillet over medium-low heat for several minutes until evenly and lightly browned, shaking the pan as needed to keep them from scorching.
Nutrition Per serving: 290 calories, 8 g protein, 43 g carbohydrates, 10 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 25 mg cholesterol, 55 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 19 g sugar
Adapted from “Morocco: A Culinary Journey With Recipes,” by Jeff Koehler (Chronicle, 2012).