Twenty years ago, when Robert Wemischner and Diana Rosen published “Cooking with Tea: Techniques and Recipes for Appetizers, Entrees, Desserts, and More," the concept swept the nation - for a brief moment. In honor of National Iced Tea month, let’s take another look at this age-old cooking method.
A brief history of tea
Known origins of tea date to nearly 3000 B.C. China, but it was under the Tang dynasty (618-906 A.D.) when tea became the national drink of China. By the 1600s, tea had made its way to Holland and, from there, into other parts of Europe.
Tea was little more than a curiosity among Europeans until Charles II married Portugese princess Catherine of Braganza in 1662. Her love of tea is thought to have helped popularize the drink in Europe. In 1664, the British East India Company began importing tea into Britain.
While tea had become the beverage of choice in Britain, high taxes kept it steeping only in the kitchens of the wealthy. A little over 100 years after tea was first imported, British taxes on tea were finally low enough that working classes could afford it. It would still be over 100 more years before tea would be firmly rooted in British food culture and way of life.
Americans were cultivating and drinking tea in the 1700s. We were enjoying cold tea by the early 1800s when green tea punches were served, often spiked heavily with rum. Iced black tea became widespread by the 1870s and had overtaken green tea as the variety of choice in America by the 1900s.
Prohibition helped popularize iced tea in America as we were looking for alternatives to alcohol. Newspapers heralded “iced tea season” in June to signify the drink’s popularity in the summer. Today, of course, we drink tea - hot or iced - all year long. Iced tea recipes also began appearing regularly in cookbooks of the time. Betty Crocker published recipes for iced tea that included mint, lemon, and lemon verbena as well as a sparkling iced tea that called for ginger ale.
Types of tea
There are a few types of tea common to Americans: black, green, oolong, and white. All tea comes from the Camellia sinensis plant. Although there are varieties of the plant, processing of its leaves is where most of the difference in tea lives.
Black tea is made by exposing tea leaves to air and fully oxidizing them. The leaves turn dark brown which intensifies the flavor.
Green tea is processed to avoid oxidation, thus resulting in a milder flavor and lighter color.
Oolong tea is processed in a similar manner than black, but the oxidation process is halted half-way.
White tea is made from baby tea buds and young leaves that are simply dried in the sun for a few days then baked. The result is a much lighter color and sweet flavor.
Cooking with tea
Tea was used in cooking in China from the time Chinese were drinking tea; the leaves were used much like any herb would have been. In Japan, tea is used to make broth in which rice is cooked and recipes like tea-smoked duck are popular. Green tea is used to cook noodles and oolong tea leaves are used as a stuffing for fish. Eggs are even hard-cooked in tea broth.
While cooking with tea has not been commonplace in America, war and depression years of the 20th century gave way to recipes like “tea loaf” that used leftover or over-steeped black tea with fruit to make a quick bread that could be enjoyed.
Today, cooking with tea is often left for the most adventurous of cooks, but here are a few rules to start. Tea flavors range from earth and grassy to floral and brisk. Some will feel hearty and deeply flavored while others are slightly astringent. Like with any herb, the quality of tea will make a difference in cooking.
Generally, the lighter or milder flavor of a main dish calls for a milder tea. For instance, white fish and shrimp pair well with white or green tea. Lamb and beef pair with black teas or darker oolong. Pork and chicken pair well with most teas, depending on what other ingredients are called for in the recipe.
Tea leaves - not the crushed tea found in tea bags - work best for rubs and stuffing while brewed tea is best in soups, stews, sauces, and baked goods. The flavor of the tea should match the ingredients in the dish, so a little experimentation may be in order for newcomers.