Learn about tea — how to prep, store, and enjoy it with many ideas on brewing and cooking.
What is tea?
also known as Cha, Chai, Te
Tea is a drink brewed from dried tea leaves in hot water. It comes in different flavors, and you can enjoy it at different temperatures, including hot and iced. Tea is made from Camellia sinensis. “evergreen shrub” found in East Asia.
The Spruce Eats lists the different names for tea from around the world.
What does tea look like?
Fun fact about tea
If you don’t count plain water, then tea is the most consumed drink in the world.
Different forms of tea
Different processing techniques create colors and flavors of tea that look and taste radically different. There six main forms of tea:
Tastes & aromas & flavors of tea
Tea comes in a huge variety of aromas and flavors, including floral, nutty, grassy, and fruity.
Tea can taste bitter. If you add milk and sugar or honey to your tea, then tea taste sweet, like chai lattes.
I find green and white teas more likely to be bitter than black and oolong teas. Or maybe the bitter teas are cheap and low quality?
Hot brew versus cold brew can also change the flavor profile.
Is tea seasonal?
While fresh tea leaves are usually picked in spring and summer, you can buy dried tea all year round.
You can drink tea anytime. Some people prefer cold-brew fruity tea and iced sweet tea in summer versus steamy, hot and spiced teas in the winter.
Where can you buy tea?
I used to buy all my tea from Trader Joe’s. A few years ago, I calculated the savings if I switched from tea bags to loose leaf tea. I’m so glad we did, considering how wasteful tea bags are. Even if there weren’t environmental and savings benefits, high-quality loose-leaf tea tastes better.
Today, I buy my tea from different purveyors on Amazon.
From time to time, I purchase herbal tea blends from Trader Joe’s (and Whole Foods if the blend is unusual — like hibiscus) because they offer smaller quantities.
When we last visited China, we stocked up on tea in Xi’an. While buying premium tea in China may not an option for you, you can find a specialty tea shop in your city or buy through eCommerce stores to acquire premium Chinese teas.
How do you store tea?
I keep tea in its original metal can or foil bag or box. For commonly consumed tea, I have cute dry containers where I store a smaller quantity on the counter to make it easier to access.
Always keep tea in a cool place out of direct sunlight and water exposure — a pantry or cupboard is ideal. If you look after expensive tea, it can last for years.
How to brew tea
My goodness, this can be a whole article alone. For now, let’s simplify.
First, learn about the difference between loose-leaf tea and tea bags. Pick which one is right for you.
- Boil water with an electric kettle. (Electric kettles are the sane and intelligent way to boil water — not a stove-top kettle. C’mon now, are we living like electricity hasn’t been invented?)
- Measure out your tea leaves and place in your teapot or directly into your cup. Or throw your tea bag in your cup.
- Pour boiling water over your tea.
- Wait for a few minutes. (2-3 minutes).
- Strain your tea.
- Your tea is ready to drink. Add milk if desired.
SIDE NOTE: Check out the chai taste test that compares crushing and toasting spices to determine whether it’s worth the extra effort when brewing chai from scratch.
This is a fancy name for “put tea leaves in cold water and wait for a day”.
What kind of equipment do I need for tea?
- Teapot or strainer (or both)
- Electric kettle
- Fancy tea sets for tea ceremonies are optional
What goes well with tea?
In Chinese culture, we drink tea with every meal. Green teas are ideal in the morning because they have more caffeine and are lighter. Red (black) teas are more common after dinner to aid digestion (no idea if tea actually helps digestion) and have less caffeine to keep you awake before bedtime.
I love green tea with dim sum. Its astringent quality washes the deep-fried sesame balls and chicken feet down like nothing else.
Recipes with tea
Recipe recommendations with Chinese tea
- China Sichuan Food’s Braised Dim Sum Chicken Feet
- China Sichuan Food’s Sesame Balls-Jian Dui
- The Woks of Life’s har gow (dim sum shrimp dumplings)
- Dim Sum Central How to Make Tofu Skin Rolls
- The Woks of Life’s dim sum tripe stew
- Garlic Delight’s Garlic Green Beans with Chili Sauce
- Garlic Delight’s Tofu, Cabbage, and Mushroom Stir Fry
- Garlic Delight’s Tofu and Broccoli with Hoisin Sauce Stir Fry (tooting own horn, of course)
When I’m doing English high tea, the menu is very British with crumpets, finger sandwiches, and scones.
Recipe recommendations with English high tea
- David Lebovitz’s Crumpets
- Mary Berry’s Devonshire Scones
- The English Kitchen’s Classic English Scones – A Complete Tutorial
- Savor The Flavour’s Easy Cucumber Sandwiches
- Savor The Flavour’s Crab Salad Sandwiches Recipe
Cooking with tea
Tea is not just for drinking. You can cook with tea leaves as an ingredient in your dishes. Let’s explore different recipes containing tea.
- Omnivore’s Cookbook’s Chinese Tea Eggs (w/ Soft and Hard Boiled Eggs, 茶叶蛋)
- My Lemonade Infusions – you can make simple syrup from teas (not only herbs and dried fruits)
- Earl Grey Ice Cream
- 196 Flavors’ Burma: Lahpet Thoke (fermented tea leaf salad)
- Andrea Nguyen’s Tea-Smoked Chicken
How to substitute
You can substitute tea with herbal teas and infusions, which are brewed using herbs, fruits, leaves and spices that don’t include the Camellia sinensis plant. For example, instead of green tea, try peppermint tea.
RELATED: Check out the Lemonade Infusions Recipe for ideas on how to use herbs and flowers to make herbal simple syrups.
Gaining in popularity, Rooibos is a South African plant whose dried leaves are brewed to make herbal tea.
Of course, coffee can be substituted for tea, both as a beverage and a cooking ingredient.
Fun things to do with tea
Tea tastings and pairings with food can be as fun as wine tastings. I’ve found it easier to taste the difference in tea than wine. Find your favorite teas with a tea flight paired with snacks.
Going through the process of rinsing tea and pouring it into small cups to slowly savor is stress relieving. Tea is wonderful for meditating when alone or lubricating conversation with friendly company.
Participate in tea performances is a fun way to experience tea drinking. The extra-long spouts affect the taste of tea and give the hot water a chance to cool by the time the tea pours into your cup.
Blending & flavoring
Creating your own tea blends is a fun way to explore flavors of tea that you can’t buy in the store. A couple of ideas for how to blend tea include:
- English breakfast tea + rose petals
- Earl Grey + lavender
- Green jasmine tea + toasted coconut
FAQ about tea
Is drinking tea good for you?
Research on tea shows health benefits from flavonoids, which appear to lower inflammation and promotes heart health. But the research is still early, and there is a correlation vs. causation issue. Is it tea that’s making tea drinkers healthier? Or are tea drinkers likely to also have other healthy habits?
I like the conclusion from Dr. Howard Sesso, Harvard associate professor of medicine. “Drink tea if you enjoy it, in moderation, and not because you’re taking it as a medicine,” he says. Black tea has a lot of oxalates, which can cause kidney stones.
What should you watch out for if buying bottled tea?
Added sugar. Bottled tea can have as much added sugar as soft drinks.
What’s wrong with saying “chai tea”?
Chai means tea in India. Once I discovered what I was actually saying every time I ordered a “chai tea latte”, I was mortified. “Masala chai” is the name for the blend of tea you’re thinking of when you hear “chai tea”. Sometimes I still say “chai tea” when I forget.
What is tea used for?
Steeping for drinking as well as cooking and eating (yes, you can eat the tea leaves in dishes).
What is the best tea?
The best tea is whatever you are drinking right now. My favorite two at the moment are:
- Jasmine tea: a heady aroma rivaling the fragrance of premium perfumes that jolts me out of my day-to-day routine
- Da Hong Pao: an oolong tea that’s surged in popularity recently and goes down really smooth