If you open up a pantry door in your kitchen, is there a box of tea or a tin of whole plucky leaves lurking inside? Do you bring it out to help you pass over that mid-afternoon hump, or slurp sleepily first thing in the morning to wake up? What if I was to tell you that tea is not just for brewing in cups but cooking into familiar foods, giving them just an edge of exoticism?
For a very long time, chefs and pastry chefs have turned to tea as another ingredient to be used in creative ways. Chef Christina Tosi of Milk Bar taught viewers of Season One’s Mind of a Chef how to make an Arnold Palmer black tea and lemon layer cake. Top Chef: Boston featured a challenge for contestant chefs to cook with tea during Season 12 for chef Ming Tsai, who has long been a fan of incorporating tea into his cooking.
That’s all fine and good for chefs and trained professionals, but how do you do it at home? Figuring out how to incorporate tea into cooking is much like discovering a new spice. Start by asking two questions. First, what do you want to make, and what flavors do you want to impart to the dish? Second, what method will you use to employ the tea? With that in mind, let’s begin exploring the wide world of possibilities by focusing on six teas.
Black tea and bergamot oil make up the well-known tea Earl Grey. The kind of black tea can vary, with some, like a Yunnan black tea, offering more of a smoky flavor and others, like a Ceylon black tea, which gives more of a smooth profile. The types of slightly bitter citrus notes of bergamot used will affect the flavor too, as some Earl Grey teas taste almost juicy, while others might taste soapy. To cook with Earl Grey, try infusing it into ice cream as they do over at the San Francisco ice cream bar Mr. & Mrs. Miscellaneous. Also, try adding ground Earl Grey as an ingredient in sugar cookies, or perhaps baked into a cake.
Known as the champagne of the tea world, this classic black tea only comes from India. Oftentimes, you might see the terms “first flush” or “second flush” ascribed to Darjeeling, which denotes the season in which the tea was picked. A good Darjeeling tea will offer muscatel notes, and sometimes you might pick up a hint of peach. Chef Charlie Trotter used to smoke salmon with Darjeeling and ginger. To include Darjeeling in your baked goods, try adding ground Darjeeling as a spice in tea cake, or make a Darjeeling syrup to drizzle over stone fruit in the summer and top it with a sprinkle of shredded fresh mint leaves.
Campfire in a cup, Lapsang Souchong comes from China and is made of black tea that has been smoked over fir tree root. It imparts its smokiness to any food that gets cooked with it, making it the smoky Spanish paprika of the tea spice world. It is responsible for such classics as tea-smoked duck. Some people also use it as the flavor enhancer for tea-smoked salmon. It even makes an appearance in chocolate truffles. A little bit of Lapsang Souchong goes a long way. Use Lapsang Souchong at home in a poaching liquid. Add it to marinades to lend a bit of grilled flavor for indoor cooking of meats and poultry.
Known often just as chai, Masala Chai in Hindi means “spiced tea.” It typically is made from any number of black teas as the base, and then sports different spices depending on the tea blender. Spices might include bits of cinnamon sticks, cardamom seeds, star anise, bits of dried ginger, and black pepper. When looking for a chai to use in cooking, it’s important to find a blend that is balanced so that all of the spices are working together rather than competing. Chai works ridiculously well with chocolate—try including a bit of ground chai in your next batch of brownies. You can also use it brewed to braise chicken and prunes for a spiced version of a Moroccan tagine.
This darling of the pastry chef world comes from Japan. Matcha is powdered green tea, made of tencha leaves that have been stone-ground. It is cherished and used in Japanese tea ceremonies. High-grade Matcha will be a vivid grassy green color. Duller green Matcha tea will be not as bright in flavor or quality. Matcha has been cited in multiple places as a 2015 trend (including Paste). The flavor profile evokes a grassiness that works remarkably well either savory or sweet. Be advised, a little Matcha goes a long way, both in flavor and in imbuing color. Matcha makes regular appearances in green tea ice cream, mocha, roll cakes, and French macarons. The San Francisco patisserie Miette makes Matcha-enrobed chocolate almonds that feature the hint of grassiness and sweetness to good effect. At home, try including a teaspoon of Matcha in your next smoothie or into balls of chocolate chip cookie dough.
Even though China exports the majority of all tea, it still holds a revered place for popular Dragon Well green tea. The leaves of this tea resemble flattened swords. Good-quality Dragon Well will be picked through for stems and twigs, while also offering the largest leaves. The color of Dragon Well is almost amber when brewed, and its flavor profile is herbaceous. Roy Fong at Imperial Tea Court in San Francisco includes Dragon Well as a seasoning in dumplings. It also makes a fantastic addition to soups instead of broth. Try poaching a piece of fish in Dragon Well with some ginger, and scallions for an easy weeknight dish.
Annelies Zijderveld’s first cookbook Steeped: Recipes Infused with Tea will be published and in bookstores in April. She has been published in Curator magazine, Arthouse America, and Sated Magazine. Follow her teatime antics and cooking with tea journey on Instagram @anneliesz.