Think Outside the Bag
Talk about a serendipitous event: Legend has it that chance brewed the first tea when Camellia sinensis leaves blew into a pot of boiling water. It was 2737 BC, and the accidental teameister who boiled that water, Chinese Emperor Shen Nung, concluded the new brew gave “vigor of body, contentment of mind, and determination of purpose.”
True teas—white, green, oolong, and black—all come from this same ancient plant and contain varying levels of caffeine, tannins, trace elements, and vitamins, as well as a diverse array of antioxidant-packed polyphenols. But the hot summer months are hardly the ideal time to curl up with a cup of hot tea—and iced tea gets old after awhile. So we asked Heli Roy, PhD, RD, associate professor of nutrition at Louisiana State University School of Human Ecology, and Robert Wemischner, culinary educator and coauthor of Cooking With Tea (Periplus Editions, 2000), to give us creative ways to think outside the bag and still reap the health benefits of this ancient plant.
White tea leaves are actually the tender tips of the tea plant that are then quickly and lightly steamed or dried to stop the polyphenol-transforming oxidation process. As a result, white tea contains the most original polyphenol content of all tea varieties, making it a great ally in the fight against aging and disease. Studies have also found that white tea defends against staphylococcus and streptococcus infections, pneumonia, and dental caries—and researchers have begun to discover even greater health benefits for white tea versus the well-studied green variety.
Steep time: 1 to 3 minutes at 165 to 185 degrees (just as the water begins to steam)
Cooked to a tea: White tea’s delicate flavor makes it difficult to cook with, but it works well as an accompaniment to food. Drink a cup of white tea with either poached pears or ginger ice cream to enhance the flavors of both.
Slightly more processed than white tea, green tea leaves are steamed
and/or pan-fired to stop oxidation, and then rolled and dried to remove the remaining moisture. While green tea retains fewer original polyphenols than white tea because of this extra processing, it has an abundance of epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), a powerful disease-fighting polyphenol that acts as an antioxidant. In fact, according to research, this “superfood” may inhibit cancer growth, reduce cardiovascular disease and cholesterol, and help control weight.
Steep time: 2 to 3 minutes at 165 to 185 degrees (just as the water begins to steam)
Cooked to a tea: Sauté delicate seafood, such as scallops and shrimp, in a dash of olive oil and green tea. Or create a comforting Japanese-style soup of udon noodles, several mushroom varieties, tofu, and green tea.
The leaves used for oolong-style tea are partially oxidized to a level somewhere between green and black teas, and then dried. Because of this process, the tea contains even fewer original polyphenols than white and green tea, but it’s certainly no health slouch: Studies show oolong tea lowers plasma glucose in those with type-2 diabetes, boosts metabolism, and promotes weight loss.
Steep time: 3 to 5 minutes at 180 to 195 degrees (just under boiling)
Cooked to a tea: Oolong works well as a poaching broth for white-flesh fish such as monkfish, lobster, and scallops, which all pair well with oolong’s naturally sweet flavor. Oolong can also be used in place of black tea as a spice and to braise meat.
Black tea is fully oxidized and dried, and this fermentation transforms many of the tea’s original polyphenols into theaflavins and thearubigens, two compounds that do more than just give black tea its dark color and distinctive flavor. Studies suggest black tea reduces the risk of Parkinson’s disease, stroke, and coronary heart disease.
Steep time: 3 to 5 minutes at 210 to 212 degrees (just boiling)
Cooked to a tea: Create a spice rub for grilling chicken, fish, and veggies with full-bodied black tea leaves (Assam or Kenyan), ground ginger, coriander, black peppercorns, brown sugar, and salt. Black tea also makes a great red wine substitute when cooking.
Bryce Edmonds is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.
Quick tip! Enjoy stronger flavor? Don’t steep longer; steep more. Steeping tea for a longer period of time brings out the tannins, and thus unpleasant bitterness. Steeping more tea will add body to your brew.