Beyond the Cup: Cooking with tea infuses new flavors into common dishes

With summertime here, tea will be served cold. But no matter the season, cooking with tea continues to gain steam both for its health benefits and its versatility as an ingredient. You receive the same antioxidant boost from eating it as drinking it, plus it’s a great way to infuse new flavors into common dishes.

In Asian cultures, tea has been a major cooking staple for centuries, but in the United States it is typically reserved for drinking. Kirk Warner, executive chef of the posh new eatery Savor, has been cooking with tea for years. “It’s a very versatile ingredient to use in both Asian-style and Western-style dishes,” he said. “Including tea in a recipe breathes new life into your dish by adding depth and texture.”

Warner enjoys using tea to perk up broth by steeping the bags for a few minutes while the contents are at a boil. Using a good-quality white tea, he brings chicken stock (preferably homemade, but store-bought will suffice), lemongrass, coriander and salt to a boil. He then steeps the bags for five to 10 minutes, depending on how strong he wants it to be, and serves with pan-roasted chicken. “The flavor of this stock is unbelievable,” he said. “It would be especially enjoyable to someone who has never cooked with tea before because it adds so much depth and flavor to the chicken.”

Tea aficionado Andrea Trapet, co-owner of Port St. Louis in Chesterfield (a tea and wine specialty shop) also uses it in many of her meals. “Adding tea leaves to a dish makes it so much more interesting and healthy,” said Trapet. “I really enjoy adding leaves to salad dressings, as well as infusing rice or poaching fish. There are so many things you can do with tea – it’s like discovering a new line of herbs or spices. The sky’s the limit.”

Beyond the ubiquitous green tea ice cream, other varietals work surprisingly well in nonsavory dishes such as scones, sorbets, cakes and jellies. Warner features Earl Grey sorbet on the menu at Savor, a dessert he described as “bright and refreshing with light notes of black tea combined with citrus hints of bergamot leaves in the form of sorbet.” Trapet said she enjoys making jelly with tea: “I typically substitute the juice with brewed tea – my favorite is jasmine.”

How to cook with tea

The myriad tea selections can be quite overwhelming, and there is much more to cooking with it than meets the kettle. What’s great about tea is its multifunctional uses; you can substitute it for wood chips when using a smoker, include it in a marinade, create salad dressings, enhance stocks by steeping tea bags in them, stuff it into meat and so on.

The vices with tea are that it burns easily and can be very potent. But once you are acclimated to the different varietals, how they interacts with other ingredients and the various methods of preparation, tea can affix new flavors and textures to your dishes.

Warner suggested thinking of teas as “different types of strong herbs or spices.” Some offer a heady, smoky flavor that pairs well with duck or earthy vegetables like mushrooms, while others provide a fantastic delicateness with mild fish such as tilapia or shellfish. The tricks of the trade are to know which teas to marry with what dishes, not to go overboard with the ingredient and to be creative. “Cooking with a new ingredient is supposed to be exciting; don’t be scared to try different things,” Warner said.

The first step is to select an apposite tea to pair with your dish, as you would with any common herb and correspondingly when cooking with wine. “Tea is analogous to wine when used as a culinary ingredient,” Trapet explained. “It should add new flavor, but not overwhelm the dish. That’s why you wouldn’t want to pair a delicate food with a strong tea.”

Warner said that tea can be surprisingly strong when used for cooking purposes, so be parsimonious when adding your new culinary wonder. Trapet cautioned to pay attention when brewing tea for use in cooking, saying, “If you over-brew you will end up with a very bitter dish, and if you overuse the tea it will turn acidy.” A good rule of thumb is to not let tea bags steep directly in your dish for any longer than 10 minutes if it’s a light tea, four to five minutes if you are using something strong.

Tea varieties
There are many tea varietals out there, but for beginner purposes, below are your main teas:

Green tea: Consider this your “all-purpose” tea, which combines well with a diverse range of foods. Known most commonly for boosting the immune system, it gives your palate a kick with “grassy” flavors and has a well-balanced, smoky aroma working well when encrusting fish such as salmon or halibut or stuffing lightly into poultry or pork.

Jasmine tea: A relative of green tea, but infused with jasmine, it has an aromatic flavor to it that is mildly sweet and similar to lavender in the way that it relaxes your body and spirit with its effervescent notes. It boasts well in dishes that are mild such as white rice, light fish, shellfish, scones and jellies.

White tea: An exclusive to China, white tea is only picked once a year (in the spring), which makes it more expensive. White tea is considered to be the most pure because it is completely unfermented and it exudes bright citrus and floral notes, pairing well with sorbets, salad dressings and light stocks.

Oolong tea: A happy medium between green tea and black tea, oolong gives your palate the same epicurean wonders of a spicy black but pairs surprisingly well with the lighter tastes of grass and sunshine. Oolong combines well when marinated with stronger vegetables such as eggplant or used as a marinade for meats.

Smoked black tea: The strongest tea you will cook with is black tea. Smoked black tea is heavily fermented over pine needles and leaves a fragrant, unforgettable taste. This tea is ultra-smoky, and infusing white rice with it will bring out your inner animal, leaving you with a craving for braised short ribs or grilled meats. It works well as an ingredient when marinating before you barbecue or as a substitute for wood chips when using a smoker.

All of these teas can be enjoyed with food as loose leafs or can be used to flavor stocks or infuse blanched items by steeping a tea bag in the water. Give tea a chance in your next recipe. Start off small; perhaps infuse white rice with jasmine tea and then move on to larger fish to bake (this time the pun is intended). Once you have a few basics mastered, you’ll be ready for more elaborate provisions.


Want to make cooking with tea even easier? Trapet offers seminars at Port St. Louis on the following dates on June 14 at 11 a.m. and June 30 at 3 p.m. Cost is $15, which includes materials. If you’re just looking to sample new varieties, the store hosts a tea tasting on June 28 at 4 p.m. For details call 314.576.7768.