How to Perfectly Steep Tea
A guide on how to perfectly steep tea!
So I take it you are here to find out how to steep your tea to perfection? If so you will be happy to know that making perfectly steeped tea is easy.
There are a few different factors involved in steeping which will influence your tea. The temperature of the water used, the amount of tea to water, and the steeping time. Nail these them and you will be well on your way to drinking some perfectly brewed tea.
Before we get to how to perfectly steep tea, there are two thing you should know about beforehand to really get a great cup.
Teabags, Tea Leaves & Infusers
While the way you steep your tea will greatly impact its taste, there are two things you can get hold of beforehand which will set you up for success when it comes to making great tea. The first of these is the tea itself.
Tea Bags vs Tea Leaves
Nowadays in the age of convenience and time saving, most of us are accustomed to using tea which has been chopped up fine and put into bags. Tea bags! Although tea bags are perhaps your fastest route to a cuppa, it might not be the best.
Traditionally tea was always brewed in its full leaf form, uncut and unbagged. Tea experts claim that whole tea leaves produce a far superior quality of cup than bagged tea.
Why Whole Tea Leaves Make Better Tea
Although this might sound like splitting hairs, there is quite a bit of logic to this claim.
Firstly, the tea which is found in bagged tea usually comprises of the ‘dust and fannings’ of tea leaves. Which is basically the dregs of the production process. Because of its broken structure and increased surface area, this dust and fannings loses much of its aroma and essential oils – the basis of the flavor of a cup of tea. Also, when this ‘tea dust’ is steeped it tends to releases much larger amount of tannins into the hot water, resulting in brews which are bitter and mouth puckering.
Secondly, tea in bags does not infuse its flavor as well into the hot water, because it is confined in the tea bag. The more water the tea comes into contact with, the better the flavor. If the tea is stuck in a small bag, the infusion process can be inhibited.
Thirdly, some people say that the tea bag itself infuses an unpleasant taste of paper into your tea. I personally find this to be true, especially if the water has reached boiling point when poured over the bags.
As you can see there is good reason to say the that whole tea leaves give a better tea than bagged tea. Now because whole tea leaves do not come in bags – you will also need an infuser if you want to start using whole tea leaves in your brews.
Infusers are perforated containers into which you can place your tea leaves. They allow the hot water in, and no leaves out. I said above that if you use loose tea leaves you will have to have an infuser. This is not strictly true, as some people simply let the leaves float free in their mug or teapot. This however can make for a more messy clean up. Which is why most people who use loose tea leaves steep them using an infuser.
Best Type of Infuser
If you search for infusers online you will see that there are literally hundreds of different types available. This can be a little confusing for the first time infuser buyer, so let’s quickly take a look at qualities to look for in an infuser.
According to some experts in tea, the best type of tea infusers are the larger basket style types. This is garnered from the fact that these types of infusers are the hot sellers in the East and most of Asia. As tea originated from Asia, I think that this is a good indication of what to look for in an infuser!
The science behind choosing a larger basket style infuser again lies in how much water comes into contact with the tea. The larger the volume of water which surrounds each suspended tea leaf, the better the flavor and compounds of the tea will infuse into the water. If the tea leaves are all bunched together in a small infuser, the water around them can become so concentrated, that it inhibits further infusion.
Brewing with loose leaves and (optionally) an infuser is a good basis to start with to making great tea. Now let’s take a look at the brewing practices you can implement for perfect steeping of your tea.
The 5 Steps to Perfectly Steeping Tea
Time to get brewing! The basic brewing practices that will bring you a great cup of tea can be broken down into five steps. They are relatively easy to do, but can make a huge difference to the flavor of brewed tea.
Whether or not you are using top of the range loose tea leaves, or a regular old teabag – you can use these five steps to perfectly steeping tea to improve your cup.
So, let’s get started.
Step 1 Preheat Cups or Teapot
The temperature at which you brew and drink your tea is key to a good cup. As you will see, it is important to not over boil your water. While slightly cooler water is better for tea steeping, this means that the cup or pot will cool down quicker. Thus falling below the ideal temperature for steeping.
To counteract this, make sure to use a little hot water to preheat your teapot and/or cup. Simply swirl it around the cup or pot a few times, or let it stand in the vessel for a moment. Discard this water and proceed to brewing.
Step 2 Heat Your Water Correctly
Do Not Overheat Your Water
The first thing when making a cup of tea is to put the kettle on and wait for it to boil. But! Did you know that tea should NOT be steeped with boiling water? That’s right. Water which has reached boiling point is too hot for optimum infusion. This is because the high temperature of boiling water will destroy compounds in the tea, and dissolve higher amounts of tannins into the tea. This will yield up tea which is bitter and lacking in flavor.
In fact, tea is so sensitive to water temperature that different types of teas have different optimum brewing temperatures. These optimum temperatures are not set in stone, you can play around with them a little to get the exact cup of tea that you like. However in general, these are the standard brewing temperatures for the main different tea types.
Steeping Temperatures for Difference Tea Types
Black tea: 210ºF
Oolong tea: 175 – 185ºF
Red or herbal tea: 210ºF
White tea: 150 – 155ºF
Green tea: 165 – 175ºF
How to Measure Water Temperature
Now we know what temperature water to use for steeping tea. But how does one measure this?
At a glance measuring water temperature seems easy. Use a thermometer! But have you tried sticking an ordinary thermometer into a narrow mouthed kettle of boiling water? Not so easy, and in fact a little dangerous. The steam rising out of the kettle can cause steam burns if it comes into contact with your hand. So, a regular thermometer which is short in length is not very easy to use for measuring the temperature of the hot water in your kettle.
So what other options are there?
Buy a Kettle Which Comes With a Built in Thermometer
There are kettles nowadays which come with built in thermometers which will tell you the precise temperature of your heating water without you having to dangle handheld thermometers into your kettle. This is a great investment if you are serious about getting the temperature of your steeping water right. If you are someone who hates guesswork, and likes accuracy – then this might be the solution for you.
However if you do not want to make this outlay – and don’t mind a little estimating – you can go for this second method.
If you do not mind a little guesswork, then you can also practice ‘eyeballing it’. This may sound a little lackadaisical, however getting used to what water looks like at different temperatures is handy skill for anybody wanting to perfect the art of tea making.
The thing to look for and analyse are the bubbles which form in the water as it is heating up. As the temperature of the water increases the bubbles which form are larger and faster.
This rough science of ascertaining the temperature of heated water by sight is fairly well developed. So much so that each stage of bubbles and its corresponding temperature range has a special descriptive name.
List of stages of bubble intensity and what temperature they indicate:
Shrimp eyes – about 70-80 °C (155–175 °F) – separate bubbles, rising to top
Crab eyes- about 80 °C (175 °F) – streams of bubbles
Fish eyes – about 80-90 °C (175–195 °F) – larger bubbles
Pope of pearls – about 90-95 °C (195–205 °F) – steady streams of large bubbles
Raging torrent – rolling boil, swirling and roiling
The rope of pearls stage is the one you are looking for when making black tea. Avoid the raging torrent stage, as by that point the water is too hot for tea making.
There are also a further two points to remember for correct water heating for perfectly steeped tea.
Do Not Reboil Water
If you are in the habit of reboiling old water that is in your kettle, stop this. Re-boiled water is not suitable for making good tea. The reason for this is that when water boils it loses oxygen in the form of those bubbles we were talking about above. The more you boil and reboil water the more oxygen it will lose.
So what, why does this matter? Well oxygen plays an important role in the steeping process because it allows the tea to spread its flavor generously into the hot water.
Do Not Overheat Water & Then Allow It to Cool Down
Another thing to avoid when heating water for tea is heating it up to boiling point, and then letting the water cool to the optimum temperature for steeping. This will also rid the water of more oxygen than is neccesary, and may impact the flavor of the steeped tea.
And that is everything you need to know about how to heat water for tea. Now, onto tea quantities.
Step 3 Use the Right Quantity of Tea
When steeping tea, it is important to use the right amount of tea to hot water. This ratio must be right, otherwise you will either have tea that too weak and tastes insipid, or tea which is too strong and tastes astringent and bitter.
Tea to Water Ratio
If you are using loose leaves, the standard amount of most tea leaves to water is:
1 teaspoon (3 grams) to 1 cup (8 ounces)
Please note that this measurement is for an 8 ounce cup. Most mugs hold between 10 to 12 ounces of water.
This is a rough rule of thumb, as some tea types will differ in what is the optimum quantity to use. Most boxes of tea will advise you in the instructions how much tea to use in relation to how much hot water.
Also, tea strength is somewhat of a personal preference. There are of course limits as to what will taste nice – but there is room for experimentation. Some teas you may find you prefer brewed weaker, and others stronger. Adjust the quantities slightly up or down to see if there is room for improvement.
Step 4 Use a Tea Cosy
When your are steeping your tea, you should try to keep the water temperature close to the ‘ideal for tea’ temperature to which you boiled the water. This way the tea will infuse at the temperature at which it is meant to, and not too much below.
The way to retain as much heat in your water as possible is to use a tea cosy. Of course tea cosies are made for teapots, and if you are not using a teapot to brew you tea in, and are simply steeping straight into your mug or cup – this won’t work.
What you can then do, is instead of using a tea cosy, is to firstly place a saucer on top of your cup or mug. This will act like the lid of the tea pot to help keep some heat in. Then, wrap a dish cloth around your mug or cup. This will work similar to the tea cosy, by insulating your cup against heat loss.
Step 5 Steep for the Correct Amount of Minutes
The time that you steep your tea for is another critical element for good tea brewing. Too short and the tea will taste weak and flat. Too long, and it will probably be bitter and slightly mouth puckering.
Different teas have different ideal steeping times. Oolong and herbal teas are the longest, and white tea (being the most delicate and least processed of sinensis teas) the shortest. Here is a list of the standard brewing times as per tea type.
Brewing Times as per Tea Type (for loose tea)
Black tea: 3-5 min
Oolong tea: 5-7 min
Red or herbal tea: 5-7 min
White tea: 2-3 min
Green tea: 3-4 min
The above list of recommended brewing times are for loose tea leaves. If you are brewing with bagged tea, then the brewing times can be slightly shorter. This is because the tea is in a much finer form (dust and fannings) and therefore will steep faster.
Brewing Times as per Tea Type (for bag tea)
Black tea: 3-5 min (remains the same)
Oolong tea: 3-5 min
Red or herbal tea: 5-7 min (remains the same)
White tea: 30-60 sec
Green tea: 1-3 min
Once again, you will probably find that most boxes of tea which you buy will list the recommended brew time on the back.
Tip: If you like strong tea, rather use more tea than draw out the brewing time. You will get a much nicer flavor by increasing the tea quantities slightly than by steeping for longer. Overly long steeping of tea can make the tea very bitter. Also, if using a bag, do not squash the bag or bags with a spoon. This will only help to release additional tannins into you tea, thereby also make your tea bitter.
Who knew there was so much science to a cup of good tea? We have our ancestors to thank for this, as tea has been brewed and drunk for thousands of years, and we now have all the knowledge on hand as to how to make perfectly steeped tea.
Although perfectly steeped tea comes with some specifics, once these become part of your tea making routine, you will be turning out cups of tea fit to serve to the queen – or any other guest who comes into your kitchen.
Did you know? The queen incidentally drinks Earl Grey, no milk no sugar.
Hope you enjoyed this article, and comment if you have any personal tea related tricks or tips.