Recently I happened to read a recipe for sweet tea that raised my Irish hackles to a fare-thee-well. Those of you who know me well can raise your eyebrows and chuckle because you know what is coming. The rest of you might want to duck and cover for the duration of the tea rant unless you, too, are a fanatic about properly brewed tea. We’ll get to what that is in a moment.
What was it, you may ask, that occasioned this rant? On a perfectly lovely blog by a polite Canadian writer who makes beautiful cakes decorated with white roses, festoons her posts with poetry and takes professional photographs, I read a recipe for sweetened ice tea (aka “sweet tea”) that called for a pinch of baking soda. Baking soda! I started screaming. I even began my comment with Aieeee! Because, my friends, baking soda does not belong in iced tea: nothing belongs in iced tea but tea leaves steeped in boiling water (and then strained out), cold water and ice. Sugar is optional — I will get to that later.
Properly made tea is part of my cultural inheritance, the one thing that has survived generations in the United States (Well, we bake bread, too, so perhaps there are two things left). I have terrified my best friend by talking about the minimal requirements for a proper cup of tea, which are:
1) a tea kettle
2) a tea pot
3) boiling water — full, rolling boil, if you please, but started from cold water from the tap.
4) loose black tea leaves
5) a teaspoon with which to measure the tea leaves
This is how we begin. If you are not familiar with your tea pot (or have just acquired it to meet my requirements), measure cold tap water into your tea pot until it is nearly full, perhaps seven-eighths. Experienced tea drinkers may skip this step since you will already know how many proper cups of tea your teapot makes. Then pour the water, cupful by cupful into your cold tea kettle, counting as you go to see how many cups of tea your pot is meant to hold, allowing a little head room so that the brewed tea does not slop out of the spout when you lift the tea pot. Once you know how many cups of tea fit in your pot you can memorize the amount of water to put in your kettle. You need to add a little extra to allow for water loss from steam and to provide extra water for scalding the pot. If you don’t know what I am talking about, don’t worry: all will be revealed.
Put your cold kettle onto a hot burner at highest heat. While you wait for it to boil you may prepare a tea tray with a cup and saucer (extra points for fine china), or a mug if you must, along with anything you take in your tea. The classic accompaniments are lemon slices, a pitcher of milk, sugar lumps (kudos if you have sugar tongs), or loose sugar. Some people use honey and many people like to include an extra pitcher of hot water to dilute tea that gets too strong or warm up the pot — we will not be bothering with the water. If your tea tray is large enough and you are strong from consuming proper black tea all your life you may want to include acceptable tea snacks such as a plate of biscuits, scones, or buttered toast, crumpets or tea sandwiches.
When your kettle comes to a full rolling boil (large bubbles rolling across the surface of the water), you bring your tea pot alongside the kettle and pour a few inches of water into the pot. This is called “scalding the pot.” Cover the pot with its lid while you reach down the loose tea, properly stored in tin or glass canisters within easy reach. Before adding tea leaves to your tea pot, be sure to dump out the scalding water. In the interest of ecology I have been known to return this water to the kettle, but you can dump it into your dishpan or utility bowl if you’d rather, or pour it down the sink to clear the drain — don’t say I never give you any choices, With your teaspoon, carefully measure one teaspoon of tea leaves for each cup of tea your tea pot holds. Some people add one additional teaspoon “for the pot.” We find that our tea is strong enough to walk on its own without this tradition. Pour boiling water over the tea leaves until the pot is nearly full and put the lid on pronto. Now you let it sit for awhile, otherwise known as steeping.
Now, what kind of tea should you use? I specified black tea because that is the tea I know best and it is actual tea made from tea plants. There are many kinds of black tea grown in different places in the world. There are pure teas of one type, such as “Ceylon” or “Assam” and there are tea blends, such as “English Breakfast” and “Irish Breakfast.” Assam happens to be my favorite. A certain species of mutants (surely it is part of their gene pool) like Earl Grey Tea. a black tea scented with oil of bergamot — to my ilk this tea tastes like tea cut with perfumed bath water, but I will not chastise them for their choice as long as they don’t serve it when I am coming over. There are other flavored black teas as well, featuring black currant or lemon. I say stick with the basics until you learn what you like: if you were born an American, you may never have had a proper cup of tea in your entire life.
If you have bought your tea leaves in a tin, the tin will likely include guidelines for how long to steep your tea. If you have bought it from a bulk bin or a jar at Country Cheese you will be on your own for the timing. We let our tea steep for about seven minutes before pouring the first cup. If it looks too light, we pour it back and let it steep some more.
Strictly speaking, what you are supposed to do is decant the steeped tea into another clean scalded pot once it reaches the intensity you want. Decanting your tea rids you of the leaves, making it impossible for your perfect tea to acquire bitterness from the sitting leaves. This is entirely proper, but we have a few lazy Philistine habits and one of them is not decanting our tea. During the steeping process, the tea leaves will sink to the bottom of the pot and during the sipping process any that got in there will sink to the bottom of your cup where you can avoid them or read your fortunes if you are good at that sort of thing. In any case, we generally drink our tea so fast and brew it so perfectly that it does not get bitter in the pot. All of us drink our tea with milk (never cream). My brother Bryan drinks his with milk and sugar. We put the tea in the cup before the additions so that we can check the tea’s color.
To make iced tea, all you do is make your largest pot of black tea as described above. After steeping, this time you decant it immediately into a serving pitcher and dilute it with cool water. If you are going to drink it immediately you will want to add ice — if not, it can now sit in the refrigerator until you are ready to serve it — since you have decanted it, it cannot get bitter and you will not need to add any baking soda. Sheesh.
If you want sweet tea, I recommend making a pitcher of simple syrup. Take a saucepan and add equal amounts of sugar and water, 1 cup sugar to 1 cup water. Boil this, stirring occasionally until the sugar dissolves. Decant syrup into a nice pitcher and provide guests with spoons. Simple syrup combines with tea better than grainy, granulated sugar, which sinks to the bottom repeatedly, leaving your last swallow of tea much sweeter than your first. You will have to stir your tea a few times to diffuse the syrup evenly even so. Each guest can sweeten her tea to her liking and your mother can have hers unsweetened as she prefers.
While you are practicing making proper tea or rejoicing in the fact that you already know how to make it, I will be putting on my red dress and my back-up singer hat to sing with Johnny Harper and the Hard Times Choir at Railroad Square in Santa Rosa. If you read this early enough in the morning, come on out and look for us at The Grand Coulee Stage at 12:50. We’ll be singing Woody Guthrie songs to celebrate his hundredth birthday.