a test kitchen dossier
Ecstasy is a glass of tea and a piece of sugar in the mouth.
– Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837)
From the Chinese Minnan dialect, in which the tea plant (Camilla sinensis) was called “tu,” later adapted to “tea” or “te” in Western languages; also known as “cha” in Japanese, Korean, Thai and several other languages.
Area of Origin: China
Tea is one of our favorite beverages given its versatility and soothing comfort (well, that and the fact that Jennifer’s mother is British). There is a permanent burner for the kettle in our Gilded Fork test kitchen, but we are not alone in our fandom. Tea is relished around the world as a steeped beverage made from the leaves and buds of the tea bush (Camilla sinensis), and is served at various times of the day from breakfast to tea time (supper time in the U.S.). Tea leaves are typically dried and can be mixed with flowers, herbs, fruit or spices; they can also be used in cooking as a brining liquid, or dried as a rub for poultry and fish.
True tea (types listed below) is not to be confused with herbal tea, which is typically made from herbs (i.e. chamomile) and/or fruits (i.e. lemons, oranges).
And of course, aside from the pleasure we get from its flavor, the added benefit of this tasty beverage is its healthful profile as an antioxidant. Not that we need an excuse.
There are several legends that attempt to account for the origins of tea, one of which asserts that the founder of Zen Buddhism tore off his eyelids to keep himself awake while meditating: He threw the lids on the ground, where they took root and grew into a stimulating plant. We’re not terribly fond of this one.
Regardless of its origins, tea cultivation began around 350 A.D. in southwestern China, and during the time of the Tang Dynasty (618-906 A.D.) tea etiquette was developed as an art, and the beverage’s popularity spread to Japan. It was during China’s Ming Dynasty, however (1368-1644 A.D.), that the steeping of tea leaves became accepted as the method of preparation.
In Japan, the formal tea ceremony (Cha no Yu) was developed by Murata Shuko, a Buddhist priest, and it gained such importance that schools were created to teach its intricacies.
In the 1600s tea was introduced to the European population thanks to the Dutch explorers, and the East India Company began its reign as a monopoly until the 1800s. In the late 1600s-early 1700s the company brought tea to the Americas (and we know what happened when it got to Boston).
It is interesting to note that tea bags were developed accidentally: Thomas Sullivan, a New York tea purveyor, would send his tea to clients in silk bags. Said clients didn’t seem to understand that they were supposed to remove the tea from the bags before steeping, and a fad was born.
There is of course much more to say about tea and its worldwide prevalence, but there are other sites and resources that have devoted volumes to it. Rather than belabor the details, we are providing broad strokes here, and have provided links below in the Resources section for further information.
Types of Tea
Varieties of tea are classified according to their drying process (sometimes incorrectly referred to as fermentation), during which time the leaves grow darker in color as they oxidize, and tannins are released. Much as with fermented beverages, the process is controlled and stopped at a particular point to deactivate the enzymes; however, in the case of tea this is accomplished with drying and heat. Temperature and moisture control is critical during this process to avoid the growth of fungi or other harmful organisms. The types of tea are listed below according to the length of their oxidation process from shortest to longest.
These young leaves are treated rather delicately, as they undergo no oxidation and are carefully kept out of sunlight. This lesser-known tea is more prevalent in China than in western countries, but is gaining popularity in the west.
Green tea leaves are processed one to two days after being harvested, and oxidation is stopped with heat after a minimal amount of oxidation. In Japan the leaves are steamed, but in the traditional Chinese method the leaves are dried in hot pans.
Ooolong tea leaves are partly oxidized, the process for which lasts about two to three days.
This is the most common type of tea, and the leaves are left to oxidize completely (hence the name “black tea”) for up to a month. (The Chinese refer to the brewed liquid’s color in calling it “red tea”.) Varieties include Assam, Ceylon, Earl Gray and Darjeeling.
There are other tea types not prevalent in the west that involve further oxidation or roasting processes, and those include pu-erh, yellow and kukicha teas (see Resources).
The Perfect Cuppa
We have been given, on good authority, the rules for properly brewing a cup of tea according to British standards: 1 teaspoon of leaves or a tea bag should be steeped for 3 minutes in water that has come to a boil, after which it should be strained/squeezed and sugar, honey and/or milk can be added if desired. When brewing by the pot, the ratio of tea to water varies based upon the type of tea leaves and personal tastes, but in general the ratio is 2 teaspoons of tea (1 for the drinker, 1 for the pot) per cup of water.
For further details on brewing specific types of tea, you will find a wealth of material online, so again, we saw no reason to belabor the point here. The art and science of a perfect cup has long been a study by people more intensely knowledgeable than us, so you can go to the Resources listed below for inspiration.
It is best to store tea in an air-tight container in a dark, cool and dry place. In general, teas have a limited shelf life, so if your tea has been sitting in the pantry for more than a year, please step away from the leaves! Teas made from flowers have the shortest self life, followed by green teas and black teas. Pu-erh tea, however, improves with age (kinda like Sophia Loren). In all cases, do not store your tea in the refrigerator, as moisture will destroy your tea and make it moldy.
It is important to note that whenever possible, you should try to use recently dried tea leaves from a purveyor specializing in this area. At the very least, go for tinned leaves, as tea bags, while convenient, tend to include fillers (which can include dusty twigs and leaf “dust”). Not terribly appetizing.
While we are fond of a good cuppa, we wanted to take tea beyond its expected incarnation and use it in desserts and savory creations (OK, we included a cocktail, too). We are particularly fond of Chef Ming Tsai’s Tea-Rubbed Halibut (below).
Honey Soufflé with Earl Gray Anglaise
Green Tea & Orange Mousse Cake
Honeyed Chai Tea
Citrus Tea-Rubbed Halibut with Orange & Fennel Salad
Garden Temptations Cocktail
Chai Pots de Crème
Magic Carousel Cocktail
Adagio (incredible variety of teas, lots of information, and options to create your own tea blends)
The U.K. Tea Council
High Tea History and Etiquette (What’s Cooking America)
Tea Time Worldwide
The Bramah Museum of Tea & Coffee
The Japanese Tea Ceremony