To brew tea, you steep it in hot water. Steeping is the process of extracting the flavor and health-promoting compounds from the solids used to make tea.
This article explains the best ways to steep tea so you can enjoy a perfect cup every time.
True or Herbal Tea
Not all tea is the same, and steeping techniques vary depending on the type you're brewing.
True teas come from the Camellia sinensis plant and include black, green, oolong, and white tea. Their flavors, colors, and antioxidant contents differ depending on how the leaves are oxidized before they're dried.
True teas are available dried, both as loose leaves or in tea bags.
Herbal teas, also called tisanes, are not true teas. Instead, they're infusions or decoctions made from the roots, leaves, stems, or flowers of herbs and plants, such as hibiscus, peppermint, rooibos, chamomile, turmeric, or ginger.
Often you use dried ingredients, but you can also make herbal teas from fresh ingredients.
The basic steeping technique is the same for both types, but the amounts needed to brew a cup vary between dried and fresh ingredients. The steeping time and water temperature needed to extract the best flavors can also differ.
True teas come from the Camellia sinensis plant, while herbal teas come from various parts of other plants. How to best steep each type differs.
Start With Fresh Ingredients
If you're making an herbal tea from fresh ingredients, such as herbs or ginger or turmeric root, it's best to use them shortly after they're cut or purchased.
True teas contain polyphenol antioxidant compounds called catechins, theaflavins, and thearubigins. They're responsible for many of tea's health benefits but degrade over time.
Researchers who monitored the antioxidants in green tea stored at 68°F (20°C) found that catechin levels were reduced by 32% after 6 months.
The quality of your water also affects the flavor of your tea. Tap water high in minerals or treated with chlorine will impart an off-flavor, so ideally, you should use fresh, cold, and filtered water when brewing.
The tastiest and healthiest cup of tea starts with quality ingredients and fresh, cold, and filtered water. Dried tea has a long shelf life, but over time, it loses some of its flavor, aroma, and health-promoting antioxidants.
Time and Temperature
To steep tea, pour hot water over your ingredients and let them rest for a few minutes. It isn't an exact science, and you should experiment to find what tastes right to you. That said, here are some general guidelines.
A hotter temperature or longer steeping time isn't necessarily better. For example, in studies, green tea brewed this way scored lower on color, flavor, aroma, and overall acceptability.
On the other hand, if the steep time is too short, you won't extract enough flavors and antioxidants.
Researchers analyzed the total amount of polyphenol antioxidants extracted over time from black tea and found it took 6–8 minutes to extract the maximum amount.
It's also worth keeping in mind that caffeine content increases with a longer steep time. True teas have varying amounts of caffeine. A 6-ounce (178-ml) cup of black tea contains 35 mg of caffeine, while the same serving of green tea has 21 mg.
Steeping your tea with hot water is the quickest way to brew a delicious cup. Here are some guidelines for the best steep time and temperature for various popular teas:
In general, green tea is the most delicate, while black and herbal teas are more forgiving when it comes to temperature and steeping time.
If you plan to drink your tea iced, cold steeping might be the way to go. Steeping tea in cold to room-temperature water results in a less bitter and more aromatic tea with a higher antioxidant content.
However, the lower the steeping temperature, the longer the brewing takes — in most cases, as long as 12 hours.
One study found that steeping at 40°F (4°C) for 12 hours extracts and retains more polyphenols than steeping for 3–4 minutes in hot water.
The study also found that steeping for 3–5 minutes at 175°F (80°C) followed by adding ice led to similar taste and antioxidant contents as the 12-hour cold steeping method, making this a quick alternative.
Steeping extracts antioxidants, caffeine, flavors, and aromas from tea. With hot water, it takes up to 5 minutes to brew a good cup, whereas cold steeping takes up to 12 hours and produces a smoother tasting tea that's higher in antioxidants.
Tools, Techniques, and Tips
While there are special tools to help you steep tea, you can also keep it simple and still steep like an expert.
At a minimum, you need a teacup, tea bag, and kettle. Place the tea bag in your teacup. Fill the kettle with fresh, cold, and filtered water and bring it to a boil, or a near boil if brewing green or white tea.
Then, pour the water over your tea bag in the teacup. Covering the teacup with a saucer is optional, but doing so will help retain more of the aromatic compounds. Steep for about 5 minutes, or to your taste.
For loose leaf tea, you'll also need a metal tea ball or infuser to hold the leaves. Measure out 1 teaspoon of dried tea leaves or 1 tablespoon of fresh ingredients per 6–8-ounce (177–237-ml) cup.
Place the leaves in the tea ball or infuser and submerge it in a cup of hot water for the proper amount of time.
Using loose leaves requires a few more tools for steeping, but in return, you have a larger selection of varieties compared with bagged tea, allowing for more combinations of flavor and health benefits.
What's more, loose leaves can be re-infused, making this option more budget-friendly in the long run. In fact, researchers found that while bagged tea was best for a single brew, the majority of loose-leave versions still showed antioxidant activity after the sixth brew.
For cold-brewed tea, it's a good idea to make multiple servings in a large mason jar at once because of the long steep time. Fill a jar with fresh, cold water and add 1 tea bag or 1 teaspoon of dried tea in an infuser for every 6 ounces (177 ml) of water.
A tea bag, cup, and kettle of hot water can produce a perfectly steeped cup of tea. Brewing loose leaf tea requires a few more tools, but in return, it offers variety and oftentimes the ability to re-infuse the leaves.
The Bottom Line
Steeping tea in hot or cold water allows the unique flavors, aromas, and health-promoting compounds to be extracted from dried leaves or other dried or fresh ingredients.
While there are recommendations for ideal steeping times and temperatures for different types of tea, experimenting with your own steeping methods allows you to discover what tastes best to you.
If you enjoy tea and want to expand your palate, loose leaf teas can add interesting flavors and health benefits while being more budget- and environmentally friendly.
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