Back when I lived in the States, I always avoided ordering tea in restaurants and cafes because it seemed that while the practice of drinking tea itself had crossed the pond, the knowledge of how to make it properly hadn't; invariably one would receive a paper or plastic cup of clear tepid water with a teabag floating lamely on top, with no hope whatsoever of extracting anything more than a faint caramel tint, and a small sealed plastic container of some anonymous lightening agent. Things were better at home, but the teabags were still generally of inferior quality compared to what one finds on the continent - you really had to steep them good and hard to get a proper cuppa out of 'em, and I honed my technique over many years to extract the maximum possible flavor (which still resulted in an only average cup of tea).
When I moved to the UK, I was dismayed to find that the abysmal practice of not using boiling water has apparently migrated (or spontaneously arisen pragmatically, owing to a lack of national pride and purity, I know not which). Even among the general populace, there is an alarmingly high incidence of improper brewing techniques (including among people who ought to be old enough to know better) - frequently engendered (it would seem) by that most pernicious and un-British of vices, impatience. By far the biggest two sins seem to be "adding the milk before the water" (which means the tea never sees boiling water and cannot possibly steep correctly) and "not steeping long enough". A distant third is "adding the sugar after the milk", which causes it to sink straight to the bottom and lie there because the tea is no longer hot enough to dissolve it. When I was served, a few weeks ago in a cafe (at a cost of £1.20 no less), a paper cup of "tea" which had been manufactured in less than 20 seconds by squirting hot water from a coffee urn onto a teabag which was then immediately removed (the resulting concoction being essentially hot tea-scented water), I decided enough was enough. Your needing my wisdoms bad, yo.
Here is how to make a reasonably good standard garden variety milk 'n sugar British-style cup of tea - a cup, not a pot - using a standard teabag, a standard kettle, a standard mug, and reasonable methods, in the shortest possible time, with no compromises to quality. Laptops and kettles should never be in proximity, so print this out if you can't remember it.
1) Empty your kettle completely and fill it with 1.5 mugs worth of fresh water from the cold tap. Less than that is insufficient, more will make it take longer to boil. Resist the temptation to use water from the hot tap to speed up the process; never drink or cook with hot tap water. Do not use the water already in the kettle, particularly if you do not know its provenance. Even if you do, repeated filling and half-emptying causes limescale deposits, so it's a bad habit.
2) While the kettle is heating up, retrieve your cup. Wash it if necessary. Place it next to the kettle. Do not place it far away from the kettle, as the water will cool while you carry it (and carrying boiling water long distances is not recommended in any case).
3) Spoon your sugar into your mug if you take it, and stow your spoon in a safe place (don't leave it in the mug). Place the teabag flat on top of the sugar. For the love of god, do not add milk at this stage. Wait for the kettle to boil. Do not lose patience and pour it out while it is merely hot.
4) When the kettle boils, and I mean boils properly (an electric kettle should "click", and a stove kettle should be at maximum whistle), rapidly pour the water directly onto the teabag. The teabag should float up as the mug fills due to trapped air and steam - keep the water stream hitting it dead centre for maximum effect. You know you're doing well if the teabag inflates from water turning to steam inside it. Don't overfill it - you only want it about 2/3 - 3/4 full, depending on how much milk you intend to put in. If you're not sure, err on the side of under filling.
5) Retrieve your spoon. Use it to push the teabag against the side to squeeze all the air out, and then push it right to the bottom of the cup, where the water is hottest. It shouldn't float back up. While the spoon is down there, give it a stir to agitate the sugar, which should mostly have dissolved anyway. Remove the spoon. Do not leave it in. It conducts heat and is a spill risk. editor's note: some people prefer honey to sugar in their tea - while this is perfectly acceptable in principle, be aware that it requires that you leave the spoon in - unrefined sugar lends a not dissimilar flavor
6) Leave the mug the hell alone for the next 3 minutes. This is the most important part. It might test your patience, but just think of this: Newton's Law of Cooling tells us that hot things cool down faster than cold things, and you haven't added the milk yet. Letting the tea steep properly actually gets the tea to a drinkable state sooner than if you rush it! Also, there may still be some sugar that wasn't instantly dissolved on contact with boiling water, and it will melt much faster before you add cold milk.
7) Why are you reading this step? It's not been 3 minutes yet. Tea is supposed to be a mellow, relaxing drink; hurrying is for the coffee drinkers. Patience!
8) Okay. It has now been 3 minutes. You may now retrieve the teabag. If you're particular, like me, you might wish to use the spoon (or your fingers if you're brave) to empty the soggy teabag of trapped tea before discarding it, but if you steeped it right that should hardly be neccesary - the spoon should be invisible more than an inch beneath the surface. Go ahead and give it one more quick stir, for luck. You know you want to.
9) Now, and only now, may you add the milk. Whole milk will make a richer-tasting cup, but skimmed milk keeps longer in the fridge and will thus be more consistent cup to cup. Use whatever you prefer as long as it's white and comes from a cow's udder - that means no soya milk, sorry hippies! Stir and enjoy!
Believe it or not, this is the fastest route to drinking a reasonable cup of tea. All the cooling is done while steeping so you don't have to wait to drink it, and you don't have to waste time stirring sugar in because it dissolves by itself in the boiling water. Physics is fun! It's really a bonus that using this method, you should have a very rich cup of tea, with no syrup at the bottom at all. If executed correctly the tea should be at precisely drinking temperature when completed, but highly refrigerated milk may throw this delicate temperature balance off; if this is the case, in future you may wish to use your .5 cup of surplus water (which normally serves only as thermal ballast) to heat the mug before you pour - this requires that you postpone adding your teabag and sugar, and the kettle will probably cool somewhat while you add them, so reboil before you pour again.
You might think all this is obsessive and overkill. Does agressive thermal management really make a difference to the final cup? Does leaving the spoon in really cool the mug too fast? Well yes, as a matter of fact; it can make a significant difference. In fact, I have noted that in a row of three mugs to be poured, the third mug poured does not steep quite so well as the first one. I surmise, though I have no evidence, that actively boiling water (as opposed to "recently boiled" water) breaks the tough cellulose walls of the tea leaves, allowing its juicy caffeinated goodness to more effectively leach out.
Perhaps you object that this method, particularly the mandatory 3 minute steeping time, leads to a too-strong cup of tea. To which I respond "just add more milk then". And if you say that it is not the final color you find offensive, but the strength of the flavor, then I say unto you: do you like tea or not? Perhaps you would prefer a hot mug of cocoa, since it seems that what you are looking for is a flavored sugary milk drink. It is possible to oversteep tea - the water should be completely black, but reasonably clear to a depth of an inch or so, and tea that has been brewing too long will get a murky muddy brownish "ox tail stew" look. 3 minutes is not nearly long enough to cause a cup to go oxtail however.
Possibly you argue that "milk in first" is a time honored tradition, and that I am trampling over centuries of dogma. "Milk in first", however, applies only to tea served in pots, where the tea steeps in a separate container; the milk is added to the cup and does not affect brewing in any way. Incidentally, the reasons for "milk in first" are unclear anyway - it seems to be by and large a tradition for tradition's sake. I have heard at least three theories - that it permits more accurate judgement of the mix, that it protects thin china mugs from thermal shock, and that adding hot water to milk instead of milk to hot water is less likely to isolate droplets of milk in boiling water, thus scalding it. Now, I don't see why finding a particular ratio of liquid A to liquid B can be made easier or harder by the order you add the liquids, the tea has cooled well below boiling by the time you add the milk and it is unlikely that you are using a bone china tea set for your morning cuppa, so none of these arguments apply to the method above.
Britain has gotten complacent. It's time we got some national pride about tea again, even if wan't originally ours, and stop copying the Americans with their foul brewing habits, their tepid water and, heaven forbid, their "coffee". It's time to Take Back Tea!
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