Can you really cook with tea?
Yes! Tea has long been the UK’s favourite drink, and in recent years it has gained more and more popularity in other “Western” countries such as the USA. My grandmother passed me her wartime recipe for tea loaf, which was a way of using up leftover tea that had been allowed to stew in the pot for too long: adding fruit removes any bitterness and the tea lends a dark colour and a delicious malty flavour to this staple of the rationing years.
However, although the idea of cooking with tea in savoury dishes is a relatively new one to this Western audience, in the tea-producing regions of the world, such as China, Japan, India and Burma, tea has been used in food in the same way as any other leafy herb for thousands of years.
If you’re interested in cooking with tea, I highly recommend finding a copy of “Culinary Tea: More Than 150 Recipes Steeped in Tradition” by Cynthia Gold and Lise Stern. A true treasure trove of recipes and information about tea, it’s on my list of the best books about tea.
In this article:
- A little history and context
- Choosing the right type of tea for a dish
- Tea as a dry ingredient
- Cooking with a cup of tea: the basic technique
- Cooking with warm tea
- Cooking with cold or cooled tea
- Using liquids other than water
Cooking with tea is very much on the rise now. The increasing popularity of tea as a beverage, coupled with a greater desire for a healthy lifestyle, means that more people want to experiment with adding healthy, flavoursome ingredients like tea into their meals. Tea is packed full of vitamins, dietary minerals and is low in sodium so easily fits into a move towards healthier eating.
Here at the Drink Tea Hub, we believe that as well as being healthy, food should be tasty and enjoyable to prepare. Cooking with tea can tick all three of these boxes. The best cooking with tea is all about subtlety: it doesn’t necessarily make the food taste of tea, arguably it shouldn’t do that at all. This is about enhancing the existing flavours of food, often by added depth, smokiness, freshness or an acidic tang. Start with a dish you enjoy cooking and eating and use tea to make it even better.
A little history and context
Tea’s origins are in China and records suggest that early in its history it was used more as an ingredient in food rather than steeped and consumed as a drink. In China, it is used along with other herbs as the basis for soups and sauces, alongside centuries-old dishes like tea marbled egg and tea-smoked duck.
In Japan, you are most likely to find tea used as a broth in which to boil rice. Matcha green tea is Japan’s best-known contribution to the world of tea and its powdered form makes it an easy to use ingredient for both sweet and savoury dishes.
In Burma, fresh tea leaves are pickled and fermented to create laphet which is often added to salads. And in India, long before the British turned up and started tea plantations, the people of Assam, in particular, were using tea leaves as a vegetable.
As with cooking with any ingredient, there is a wide range of ways that tea can be incorporated into dishes. However, the idea of this guide is to start with the basics so let’s start with how to choose a type of tea to enhance a particular dish.
Choosing the right type of tea for a dish
When it comes to choosing a tea for savoury foods, generally speaking, the lighter in flavour the main ingredient, the lighter the tea that pairs well with it. As a rough guide:
Pairing tea with meat and fish
- Delicate white fish, shrimp and prawns work best with a white, yellow or green tea.
- Oily fish like mackerel, sardines and tuna, work well with black, oolong and Pu-erh tea.
- Lamb and beef need a black, Pu-erh or darker oolong.
- Pork and chicken can be matched with the full spectrum of teas but it is important to consider the other ingredients in the dish when choosing which tea to use.
Pairing tea with vegetables
- Full-flavoured vegetables like wild mushrooms, kale, Savoy cabbage and asparagus match well with the darkest Assam, Pu-erh or smoky Lapsang Souchong.
- Lighter vegetables like tomatoes, zucchini and potatoes work better with a lighter oolong, green or yellow tea.
- Light, citrusy flavours like lime or lemon would work much best with a green, yellow or white tea.
Another important consideration is the colour which will be imparted by using a particular tea. Matcha gives a bright green result which might be fine but some people might find bright green chicken a bit strange. Black, Pu-erh and the darker oolong teas will, of course, darken a dish, an effect which may or may not be desirable.
A note about quality
When purchasing tea for culinary purposes, we would advise against choosing a cheaper tea than you would choose for drinking. Yes, we reserve our Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe for drinking at afternoon tea, but our experiences with using teas at the other end of the quality spectrum, that is, dusts and the cheaper fannings that make up some teabags, lead us to advise that these do not make the best partners for food. As with cooking with wine, always use the best tea that you can afford or the results will be disappointing.
Tea as a dry ingredient
One of the easiest ways to start cooking with tea is to use it as a dry ingredient and Japanese matcha green tea is perfect for this purpose. It comes prepared as a fine powder, having had the stalks removed before grinding, so it is easy to use in all sorts of recipes. The same effect can be achieved for other types of tea by either using a pestle and mortar (and a lot of elbow grease!) or a coffee or spice grinder.
Some foods are made without the use of much liquid at all: biscuits, cookies, doughnuts and certain types of cake fall into this category. For these sorts of foods, tea leaves will need to be added directly so some thought needs to be given to the desired texture of the finished product and therefore how finely the tea should be ground. A coarser grind might add a pleasing “bite” to a shortbread cookie but might add an unpleasant, grainy, bitty character to a doughnut. When starting to cook with tea it is probably better to over grind rather than under grind the tea so that it all but dissolves into the mixture.
Cooking with a cup of tea
I don’t just mean cooking while a nice cup of tea brews so that you can drink it, although that’s always a good idea too.
This basic technique simply involves brewing tea as if you were going to drink it but using it as a liquid for cooking instead. Heat the water to the appropriate temperature for the type of tea being used, pour over the leaves and make a brew. Discard the leaves, preferably by composting them, and use the liquid. It’s as simple as that.
A brilliant tip comes from one of my favourite food writers, Jack Monroe (follow her on twitter @BootstrapCook or on Instagram @JackMonroe). In her book “Cooking on a Bootstrap” she recommends using an infusion of black tea as an economical alternative to red wine in recipes. She says “it sounds like a mad trick, but it certainly works a treat, imparting the same lip-smacking tannin flavour as half a bottle of decent plonk would cost”
If you want a more concentrated tea flavour it’s advisable to use more tea for the same amount of time as leaving the tea to brew for longer, while increasing the strength, also tends to add bitterness to the flavour. As a general rule, try not to let it brew for longer than about half an hour or the liquid will start to become bitter.
Cooking with warm tea
Cooking grains in tea
Tea can be used while still warm as a broth for cooking rice, couscous or other grains, just as you would use any vegetable broth.
Poaching or braising meat or fish
Warm brewed tea makes an excellent liquid in which to poach meat or fish. Follow the guidelines above as to the best type of tea for a particular meat or fish.
Making tea-marbled eggs
This is a classic Chinese recipe where hard-boiled eggs have their shells cracked and then are poached for a further time in tea.
Making soup with tea
Cooking with cold or cooled tea
Either use warm tea that has been allowed to cool or, if you have plenty of time, cold-brew the tea, that is, steep it for many hours in chilled water in the refrigerator. This will result in a smoother, cleaner flavour. This is especially preferable if using tea for single-flavour sorbets and granitas where freshness and clarity of flavour are everything.
Tea as a marinade for meat or fish
Following the flavour guidance above, tea makes an excellent marinading liquid but of course, must be cold before it can be used in this way. It can then either be discarded or for added flavour can be used as a poaching liquid.
Using liquids other than water
Tea with dairy and other fats
Tea can be steeped in liquids other than plain water, for example, milk or cream, in order to make tea-flavoured custard or ice cream. It takes much longer for the flavour of tea to develop in dairy products so add the tea to hot milk or cream and leave for at least thirty minutes, if not even longer.
Tea can also be steeped in other fats, including melted butter, and plant-based fats like vegetable and nut oils. The best result will be obtained if the fat is hot when the tea is added, but obviously well below the particular fat’s burning temperature.
This can be quite difficult to judge, particularly with plant-based oils as they are liquid at room temperature so, unless you are a very confident cook, do a little prior research about the oil you are planning to use. As with dairy, the flavours take much longer to develop in fats than in water-based liquids, so allow tp steep for at least half an hour.
Tea with vinegar
Vinegar’s acidity, on the other hand, means that it absorbs the tea flavour relatively quickly. This makes it quick and easy to create tea-flavoured vinaigrettes and other salad dressings. The usual technique is to bring the vinegar to the temperature that you would use for making tea water, add the tea leaves, remove from the heat, allow to cool to room temperature and then strain immediately.
Tea with alcohol and fruit juice
Cold-brewing is the most appropriate method for infusing tea into alcohol and fruit juices, as both of these will have their flavour altered by heating. Add the tea to room temperature or chilled versions of these products and allow to steep overnight before straining and using.
I hope this has given you lots of ideas for starting to cook with tea. If you’ve never tried it, start simply and build up your confidence before attempting something more ambitious.