Tea 101: What You Need To Know About Tea

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.

Close up look of jasmine green tea and da hong pao tea with tea pots and tea cupsPin

The Spruce Eats lists the different names for tea from around the world.

What does tea look like?

Side by side comparison of 5 types of loose leaf teas - jasmine, masala chai, english breakfast, pu'er teaPin
A range of teas with a close up look of a tea leaf between wooden tweezersPin

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:

  • White
  • Yellow
  • Green
  • Oolong
  • Black
  • Post-fermented
A collection of teas stored in their original boxes and bags, including pu'er tea cakesPin
Tea comes in a huge variety of forms, colors, aromas, flavors, and packaging — all from the same plant.

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.

Side by side comparison of loose leaf chai next to tea bags of chaiPin

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.

An assembly of all the tea containers including stoneware, glass, metal cansPin
The assortment of containers I use to store tea. I only use the glass jars for dried herbs and flowers (chamomile and peppermint are in the mason jars).
A giant cloth bag with individual bagged teas in different colors and flavorsPin
The loose leaf tea is weighed and vacuum packed in individual plastic baggies for freshness. Wasteful packaging but it protects the tea.
A close up look of pu'er tea wrapped in its packaging with yellow satin clothPin
A giant cake of pu’er tea in its golden satin wrapping

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.

Hot brew

  1. 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?)
  2. Measure out your tea leaves and place in your teapot or directly into your cup. Or throw your tea bag in your cup.
  3. Pour boiling water over your tea.
  4. Wait for a few minutes. (2-3 minutes).
  5. Strain your tea.
  6. 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.

Cold brew

This is a fancy name for “put tea leaves in cold water and wait for a day”.

Two tall glasses of cold brew tea - jasmine green tea on the left and english breakfast tea on the rightPin

What kind of equipment do I need for tea?

  • Teapot or strainer (or both)
  • Teacups
  • Electric kettle
  • Fancy tea sets for tea ceremonies are optional

What goes well with tea?

An illustrated guide of what goes well with tea - different teas for cooking and brewingPin

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.

Dim sum - pork and shrimp dumplings - with tea in a teacup next to the dishPin

Recipes with tea

Recipe recommendations with Chinese tea

Tea pot with a tea cup and dipping sauce at dim sumPin

When I’m doing English high tea, the menu is very British with crumpets, finger sandwiches, and scones.

Recipe recommendations with English high tea

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.

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.

Lemonade making ingredients set up including mason jars, lemon, lavender, basil, and measuring cups.Pin

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 tasting

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.

Xi'an tea shop with sales person pouring tea in a tea tastingPin
Tea tasting at a tea shop in Xi’an
Tea tasting run at home with the variety of teas we brought back from China (thanks to my cousin Bonnie for gifting the teas)
Alex drinking a cup of tea with his pinky pointing upPin

Tea ceremony

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.

Close up look of jasmine green tea and da hong pao tea with tea pots and tea cupsPin

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.

Sichuan restaurant with a special tea pourer using a tea pot with an extra long spoutPin
Sichuan hot pot restaurant in Shenzhen. The extra-long tea spout on the teapot cools down the water by the time it arrives in my teacup.

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
An assembly of jasmine green tea and da hong pao tea with tea pots and tea cupsPin
Da Hong Pao tea leaves and brewed in a teacup (left) with Jasmine Green tea leaves and brewed in a teapot (right)
Anna looking down chopping vegetables
About Anna Rider

Hi! I'm Anna, a food writer who documents kitchen experiments on GarlicDelight.com with the help of my physicist and taste-testing husband, Alex. I have an insatiable appetite for noodles 🍜 and believe in "improv cooking".

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