Guest Blogger: Patrick Miller
Steeping is simply the process of leaving solid matter in water and allowing the water to absorb the flavor or nutrient. Is it hard to do? No. Is it difficult to get right? It can be. Confused about steeping? You're not alone. Like everything in life it just takes a little practice.
Let's start with the water and its temperature, the fresher and colder the water the better. Water that has been purified will undoubtedly offer the best taste with its lower minerals and higher oxygen levels, where as hard tap water will contain unwanted minerals and sometimes chemicals from the local water plant, which can both lead to making your tea taste oily, flat and downright bad.
When steeping White tea or Green tea be sure to finish with a lower temperature. These are the most delicate of teas and boiling water can bruise the teas and release the compounds too fast. Alternatively, black and herbal teas do need boiling water so that all their ingredients can come out and you can enjoy the full flavors.
With an eye on your kettle (hint: there are some great electric kettles on the market that measure temp and have an automatic shut off) remember that smaller air bubbles rising to the surface mean that the water is just before boiling, the perfect temp for White and Green Tea. Bubbles the size of a "string of pearls," as the Chinese say, are good for Oolongs, and a rolling boil is best for Black and Herbal teas. As soon as the water starts boiling, remove your pot from the heat and pour over the tea leaves. Hint: as water continues to boil it will loose levels of dissolved oxygen - and you want that dissolved oxygen in your water to improve the taste. Also, never cook your tea. Boil the water and pour over (or infuse) but don't cook the leaves in the pot.
Many will advise that you shouldn't steep any tea longer than a minute or two, and green tea even less, while others will say steep to taste. The easiest thing to do is to stick to the steeping times listed on the package. We prefer the listed steeping times, as teas are just as complex as wines, and the directions will guide you to the methods that have been tried and tested for centuries, taking the soils, weather and plant into consideration.
All that said, you will certainly learn your own flavor preferences for different teas as you experiment more. Generally speaking, whites and greens should steep 2 minutes.... allow a few seconds longer to reach your favorite taste but do not leave for 4, 5 or more minutes as you will ususally end up with a very bitter product. Herbals and fruites are intended to pull out every bit of flavor and steeping for 5 minutes or longer should increase the flavor profile, and since there is no actual tea in it you will not get the bitter after taste should you let it sit longer. Oolongs, generally known as the champagne of tea and used ceremonially for special occassions and weddings should be steeped exactly to the directions. Usually about 2-3 minutes. Sometimes expensive, don't ruin these teas by forgetting the leaves in the water. If it's bitter that is a signal you steeped for too long. Adding a sweetener won't solve this problem, just take note and steep for less the next time around.
Using an infuser? Make sure it's big enough for your leaves to swim around a bit, allowing the leaves to realize their potential. And guess what, most teas can actually be resteeped (increasing your value to cup ratio!) and yes, the second time around you might have to steep - a little longer to get the remaining flavor out. But be careful it is still possible to oversteep on the re-steep. If you want to resteep it is best to let the leaves mostly dry out. This gives them the ability to absorb what left before you try to suck them dry. :)
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