Tea is not only a cozy drink. It has developed a second life as a trendy new "spice."
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From chai-flavored cheesecake to tea-smoked tofu, with a scoop or two of green tea ice cream in between, cooking with tea is taking culinary circles by stealth.
“As drinking tea becomes more and more in vogue, chefs are turning to tea as a flavoring agent—the same way they started experimenting with coffee when the Starbucks phenomenon hit a few years back,” explains François Payard, owner of Payard Patisserie & Bistro in New York City, who has recently created a green tea tart and a collection of tea-flavored chocolates. “Tea is something that has always gone well with food, so it’s only natural that chefs are turning to it for its flavoring possibilities and using it in the same way they use herbs and spices.”
Another reason for the growing interest in cooking with tea has to do with health and the continual quest for ways to skim off calories without sacrificing flavor, according to Diana Rosen, co-author of Cooking with Tea. “Anything that adds flavor without adding fat, calories, sodium or sugar really needs to be explored,” Rosen laughs. But the tea-flavoring trend is not just the latest gastronomic whim of cutting-edge chefs looking for the next new thing. Cooking with tea has been around almost as long as tea-drinking itself. For centuries, Chinese cooks have used black tea to smoke, season and simmer foods. Since the Middle Ages, Japanese diners have delighted in ochazuke, a simple dish made by pouring green tea over rice just before serving it. And the British have used brewed tea to stew dried fruit and flavor tea cakes and afternoon tea breads for more than 150 years.
As current-day cooks expand on these traditional tea uses, they are discovering that even simple, subtle additions—a jasmine tea bag or two simmered with rice, or a tablespoon of brewed English Breakfast whisked into a salad dressing—can add a richness and depth to foods without overpowering their natural flavors. Anne Willan, cookbook author and founder of La Varenne, a French cooking school, compares tea’s possibilities to those of fine wines. “In terms of taste, tea can have the same kind of depth, flavor and complexity as wine does, which makes it very versatile,” she explains.
Willan discovered cooking with tea about a year ago, during a visit to Mariages Frères tea salon in Paris, and she has been experimenting with it ever since. Her favorite uses include:
Poaching fruit in brewed tea to intensify flavor (much the same way poaching in wine would);
Simmering a can of broth and a handful of fresh vegetables with an oolong tea bag for a quick soup that tastes made from scratch;
And placing six “plain ol’ tea bags” in cooking water with a cup of dried beans to deepen their color and add a slight, almost peppery flavor.
TEA IN SYMPHONY
When tea lends its complex taste to dessert, the results are nothing short of elegant. Full-bodied black teas such as Assam, Darjeeling and English Breakfast have deep notes that intensify the flavor of all things chocolate, while pungent green teas add a tang to creamy desserts such as crème brûlée, and can round out the tartness of a citrus sorbet. Fragrant specialty teas—chai and Earl Grey—really shine in dense concoctions such as cheesecake and chocolate frosting.
Payard, Rosen and Willan all agree that the secret to cooking with tea is to think of it as an ingredient, not a beverage, and go with what you know. For example, if you love English Breakfast, try placing the dry tea leaves in a pepper mill and grinding them over omelets and salads as an alternative to black pepper. If green tea is your thing, buy it in powdered form, and sprinkle it on fruit. Or simply add an Earl Grey tea bag the next time you make a mug of hot chocolate. Chances are, once you see how easy it is to add an exotic note to everyday dishes, you’ll get hooked on cooking with tea as well—and you’ll find yourself adding flavors like a true food pro.
Don’t be daunted by the multitude of teas on the market. It all boils down to three types: black, green and oolong, all of which come from a single plant species, Camellia sinensis.
Black tea is made by rolling tea leaves to release plant enzymes that cause the leaves to oxidize and turn brown before drying. These leaves produce the robust, reddish-brown brew favored by many tea drinkers. Well-known black teas: Assam, Darjeeling, Ceylon, Yunnan
Green tea comes from leaves that have been steamed to prevent oxidation before drying. Their grassy, sometimes astringent flavor comes closest to that of fresh leaves. Well-known green teas: Sencha, Gunpowder and Matcha (used in Japanese tea ceremonies).
Oolong tea has a nutty, earthy flavor and falls somewhere between black tea and green tea because the leaves are allowed to partially oxidize before drying. Well-known oolongs: Formosa and China.
Tea blends mix varieties of black teas to round out flavors and create body with mellowness. Well-known blends: English Breakfast, Irish Breakfast and Lipton
Specialty/flavored teas are tea blends that have been flavored with oils, fruits or spices. Well-known flavored teas: Earl Grey—which is scented with citrusy oil of bergamot—smoky Lapsang Souchong and spicy Indian chai