Whole Foods Healthy Cooking: Tea Time

Curled up on the sofa, the stress of the day releases as you take in the color and aroma of the liquid. You sip and a depth of flavor moves over your tongue. You think, “What is that sensation”? Your eyes close and your mind begins to associate words that describe the taste.

Crisp, fresh, buttery, grassy notes, floral notes, sweet, lingering — all words that attempt to express the incredibly luscious taste of tea!

If you haven’t ventured beyond the world of the familiar yellow box of tea bags found in your grandma’s cupboard, you’re in for a treat. There’s a whole world of exciting teas to explore and the possibilities are almost limitless.

Growing up, we never had tea in the house. I was offered some once at a friend’s house when I was in high school. I took one sip, left the rest in the cup and went decades before tasting it again. About five years ago I began reading about the health benefits of tea and it got my attention. I began experimenting with a wide variety of teas and, after tasting some of the great options I was hooked. Now, I currently have a collection of about two dozen teas that are my favorites. There truly is a tea for every occasion and for every mood. And, the health benefits — the original draw — are impressive.

There are basically four types tea: black, green, white and oolong. The interesting thing is that they all come from the same plant — Camellia sinensis. The thing that differentiates them is the production process. Overall, here’s what happens:

Black Tea

(fully fermented)

Once the tea leave are picked, they’re spread out to dry to reduce the water content. The leaves are then rolled (which breaks down the leaf cells) and the oils rise to the surface. These oils help oxidize the leaves which gives teas their unique flavor and color. The final step is the drying process. Leaves are placed in a 200 degree oven until they’re 80% dry and then placed over wood fires to finish the process. The now dark colored leaves are then sorted according to size ranging from "leaf grade" to “dust.”

Oolong Tea

(partially fermented)

This process is similar to black tea. The main difference is that, instead of rolling the leaves, they’re usually shaken in order to bruise the edges and the oxidation period is about half the time. They’re also heated at a higher temperature and the water content is lower.

Green Tea


This process is much shorter. The freshly picked leaves are either pan fried or fired in order to prevent oxidation. The leaves are then rolled and dried. These leaves usually remain green in color and retain a grassy flavor.

White Tea


The least processed of all teas, these are not shaken or rolled. Only the young leaves and new growth buds are picked and are steamed to prevent oxidation and then dried. The highest quality will have fine “white hair” on the leaves. The flavor is sweet and light. It’s also my favorite and makes up over half of my tea collection.

Research shows that white tea is one of the healthiest beverages you can drink and it’s one of the highest quality teas you can buy. It has more antioxidants than Vitamins E and C and can help reduce high blood pressure. Some studies show it may help fight cancer.

The cost of quality tea may make people think twice about trying it. You truly do get what you pay for and when you consider that high quality tea leafs can be steeped three times, the cost comes close to that of low quality bagged teas. Think also of the content of the tea bags or containers you’re buying. Know what you’re getting. Fannings, or dust, are the bits — the dust left over during the processing of tea. The large leafs go into the high quality products, usually the loose leaf teas. Much of the dust that’s left over is bagged into the bargain brand teas. When brewing, tea leaves need room to expand so, sometimes high quality tea is intentionally turned into “dust” in order to fit into bags. Just know what you’re paying for. Taste comparisons are a good way to decide which are best for you.

Storing tea is easy. Two things are required: a container with a tight fitting lid and storage in a dry, cool, dark space — never the refrigerator. Proper storage will ensure a shelf life of up to two years. So, you’ve selected some great tea and you’re storing it properly. Let’s talk about preparing it. There are a few rules to follow.

Water Temperature:

  • Black tea — boiling water, 5 minute brew
  • Oolong tea — boil water, remove from heat, let sit for a minute, 4 minute brew
  • Green tea — just under boiling, 3 minute brew
  • White tea — just under boiling, 1–2 minute brew


Forget those cute little ball tea infusers; they’re too confining. The key to brewing great tea is giving the tea leaves room to move freely and allow the water to completely surround the leaves at all times. This ensures the best flavor and release of health giving properties. Put the tea into a pot and fill with water and strain through a tea strainer as you pour into cups, or use a large tea strainer designed to fit into your cup. Whatever method you choose, make sure the leaves can move! The water you use will affect the taste of the tea. Use fresh, pure water. If you have chlorinated tap water, buy spring water for brewing.

Preparation How-to’s:

  • Pour cold, fresh water to the kettle.
  • Heat to almost boiling for green or white tea and to boiling for dark teas (or heat to boiling, remove from heat and let sit for five minutes before pouring over green or white tea).
  • Warm the teapot by pouring hot water in pot, swirling around and pouring it out as a heated pot keeps the tea hot longer.
  • Place 1 teaspoon tea leaves per cup into the infusion basket.
  • Pour water over leaves and cover.
  • Steep for the appropriate amount of time.
  • Remove the infuser and pour. Keep in mind that your tea will taste bitter if the tealeaves remain in the pot too long. Proper brewing times allow the flavor to come through. After that the tannins make the tea taste bitter.

Tea Parties

For a fun time with friends, try a tea tasting party. They’re becoming a huge hit and many are doing chocolate and tea pairing parties. Give it a try and discover some great varieties. Either supply the tea or have each guest bring a different type. Invite a few friends, gather some tools and have some fun. You’ll need: a variety of teas; fresh, good quality water; a kettle to heat water; cups and teapots (clear are best in order to evaluate the color and appreciate the beauty of specialty teas); teaspoons and tablespoons.

If you’re going to be evaluating the teas, all sweeteners and milks are out. You’re after the true flavor of the tea. I use a teapot for each type of tea. A bit of masking tape on the bottom with the type of tea written on it helps identify what’s what once we begin evaluating them. I like to keep the type of tea a secret until we’ve all had a chance to rate them all.

Once you’ve brewed the teas you’re ready to begin. Give everyone his/her own cup and add about a quarter of a cup of tea for the tasting. The first thing to notice is the color and the aroma. How can you describe it? Each type of tea produces a color. Fermented teas are darker, non-fermented are lighter. Steeping technique will also influence color. Close your eyes and smell the tea. What does it smell like? Floral? Grassy? Sweet? What comes to mind as you take in the aroma?

Next, you taste. When sipping tea at a tasting, it’s considered appropriate to slurp! That allows the tea to spray throughout your mouth and hit all your taste buds. The tongue has different zones and each has a type of flavor it can taste. The tip recognizes sweet, the front sides taste salt, the back sides pick up acid and the very back bitter. Slurping also allows the tea to strike your nasal cavity, which is important since the sense of smell influences taste. Now, begin to focus on the flavor: sweet, nutty, bitter, astringent. How pronounced is it? Does it linger on your tongue, or is it gone in an instant? What about the texture? What sensation do you have once you swallow it?

As you go through each quality of the tea, discuss it and jot down some notes. Have each person select his/her favorite tea. Divide up the tea and everyone goes home with a variety of teas. We usually end our evenings with a few cups of our favorite tea served with some fresh scones.

Cooking with Tea

Not a fan of the taste of tea but still want to enjoy the health benefits? Try cooking with it. It’s a great flavor enhancer. Give it a try and you’ll reap all the health benefits tea offers. Start out by substituting brewed green tea for the water in a recipe. Try it in rice tonight and notice the pleasant, subtle flavor it adds. Or, use brewed tea to cook your pasta. Fill a pot with as much water as you need to cook your pasta, add the appropriate amount of tea and brew it. Once brewed, use is as you would plain water to cook your pasta.

The stronger the brew, the more pronounced the flavor. You could also buy matcha, a green tea powder. The green tea leaves are ground up and it’s mixed with hot water or added directly (a teaspoon of the powder) to soups (miso soup made with green tea is superb), stews, sauces, stir-fry, marinades, etc. It mixes instantly and you’ll get all the benefits of freshly brewed.



Fruit Tea

Those bottled teas readily available in the grocer’s refrigerated case are so convenient and they’re very tempting to buy. The bad news is that a study by the USDA found a lack of antioxidants. Try making your own at home and get the great taste of bottled without all that sugar and you’ll reap all the health benefits.


  • 1 cup freshly brewed tea (I prefer white or green)
  • 1 cup sparkling water (use still water if you prefer)
  • 1/2 cup juice (pure pomegranate or peach nectar are my favorite; add more or less to adjust sweetness)


Pour all into a glass, add ice if desired, and enjoy. Note: Pouring leftover tea into ice cube trays is a great way to chill your beverages and not dilute the drink

All recipes are courtesy of Michelle Hirsch, Spirit of Change foods columnist and co-author with her son J.M. Hirsch of Venturesome Vegetarian (Surrey Books, 2004).

Michelle Hirsch lives in southern NH and teaches whole foods cookingthroughout New England. She is a graduate of the world-renowned KushiInstitute where she also worked developing curriculum.

Steamed Rice

Make sure to steam, not boil, your rice in order to retain the health properties of the tea.


  • 1 cup uncooked brown rice
  • 1 cup green tea
  • 3/4 cup water
  • Pinch of sea salt
  • One-inch piece kombu (sea vegetable)


Add all ingredients to the steamer container and steam rice for 60 minutes.


For a real health boost, use brewed tea as the base for smoothies. It’s easy to make and easy to take on the road. Try it — it’s delicious!


  • 1 cup brewed tea, cooled (green or white are best)
  • 1 8 oz. carton of soy yogurt or a cup of silken tofu
  • 1 frozen banana
  • 1 cup frozen berries


Put all ingredients in the blender and blend until smooth. Serve immediately.

Michelle Hirsch lives in southern NH and teaches whole foods cooking throughout New England. She is a graduate of the world-renowned Kushi Institute where she also worked developing curriculum. Michelle is the author of Venturesome Vegetarian and can be contacted at mphirsch@yahoo.com.

All recipes are courtesy of Michelle Hirsch, Spirit of Change foods columnist and co-author with her son J.M. Hirsch of Venturesome Vegetarian (Surrey Books, 2004).

Venturesome Vegetarian by Michelle Hirsch Michelle Hirsch lives in southern NH and teaches whole foods cooking throughout New England. She is a graduate of the world-renowned Kushi Institute where she also worked developing curriculum.

Michelle is the author of Venturesome Vegetarian.

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