For many years, I mainly enjoyed tea as a mug of Irish breakfast in the morning or a tall glass of iced tea on hot afternoons. I had cooked with it a little bit, but I hadn’t begun to realize its full potential until I met the late John Harney, a master tea blender and founder of Harney & Sons Fine Teas. As he taught me about the many varieties, I felt like I was discovering a new spice cabinet. I learned how teas can impart subtle smoky, floral, grassy, or even spicy notes, and how to cook with them in different ways, which I’ll share with you here. Then, like me, the next time you try a new tea, you’ll be thinking not just about how it tastes as a drink but also what you’re going to cook with it.
Two categories of tea
Tea is a combination of leaves, stems, and roots most often used to infuse hot water for a beverage also called tea. “True” teas—green, black, white, yellow, oolong, and pu-erh—are made from the Camellia sinensis plant. Their wildly different looks and flavors depend on whether and how they’re dried or fermented.
Herbal teas, sometimes called tisanes, are caffeine-free infusions of herbs, roots, leaves, or some combination. Some popular ones are mint, chamomile, and rooibos (pronounced ROY-bos), which is made from South African red bush.
How to use tea in recipes
Infuse cooking liquids
This is a great way to add mellow, balanced tea flavors to soups, stews, and braises (try it in this Moroccan Lamb Stew with Mint Tea). Heat broth, cream, or juice and steep the tea just as you would in water.
Use a coffee or spice grinder to pulverize the tea, then add directly to sauces (like the Earl Grey Beurre Blanc for these seared scallops), glazes, or baked goods. No need to steep or strain.
Make a spice mix
Mix finely ground tea with other spices and toss with Fried Chickpeas or candied nuts, or sprinkle on fish after cooking.
Replace water with tea
This is the most straightforward way to cook with tea. Simply substitute brewed tea cooled to room temperature for some or all of the water in any recipe. These Green Tea Cranberry Muffins get a verdant flavor from the brewed tea in both the batter and the glaze.
There are very few rules when cooking with tea, but here are a few guidelines.
- Buy high-quality tea. Use premium brands of loose-leaf tea, which has a fuller flavor and aroma.
- Cut open tea bags if you don’t have loose-leaf, but know that lower-quality bags contain fine tea “dust” that’s not an equal substitute for whole leaves.
- Use tea quickly. Its volatile oils dissipate over time, leaving a musty flavor.
- Store tea in an airtight container in a cool, dark place.
- Match your water temp to your tea. Brew true teas with boiling water, herbal with simmering.
- Steep tea for cooking for the same amount of time you would for drinking, 3 to 5 minutes.
- Always cook with freshly brewed tea. It can turn bitter and overly tannic as it sits.