How do I chai?
December 7, 2018 10:38 AM   Subscribe

Is it possible to make a decent cup of chai using loose-leaf tea and boiling water as a base rather than milk? All the instructions I can find involve simmering the tea on the stove with milk, and I'm sure that tastes great, but it's not what I want to do. Teach me how to add milk and sweetener to tea brewed with water.

I don't drink coffee or black tea, so I know nothing about adding milk and sweetener to hot drinks. I'm a loose-leaf tea nerd, but I only drink greens and oolongs and I drink them plain. That said, I do like black tea-based chai. When I make it at home, it doesn't have to be the best cup I've ever had, but I want it to not totally suck -- and it has totally sucked every time I've tried so far because it's either too harsh or too bland. I think it's because I fundamentally know nothing about the milk and sugar.

I usually make tea in a large mug (the equivalent of a 3-cup teapot) with a filter bag, and that's what I'd like to do with the chai too.

So my questions are: when using a loose-leaf chai blend like Upton's, do you steep the tea then add milk? Or do you add it while it's steeping? Can you use cold milk from the refrigerator? How much milk should you use? What about adding honey or sugar? Which do you prefer? When do you add it and how much do you use?
posted by liet to Food & Drink (17 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Steep tea, then add sugar so it dissolves more readily in the hot tea, then add milk last because it'll bring the temperature down.

Sugar is more forgiving than milk -- go very slowly with adding milk and taste afterward. While you are dialing this in, I'd measure the amount you're adding, so that you can precisely zero in on the correct amount.

You can use cold milk from the fridge! I like the Land O Lakes Mini-Moos because they are real shelf-stable half-and-half and the amount is consistent.

Everyone's different in amounts, but my perfect cuppa (not chai) is PG Tips with one packet of Sugar In The Raw and one Mini-Moo.
posted by fiercecupcake at 10:48 AM on December 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Different chai blends foreground different spices in different levels; I've had blends that were peppery, clovey, gingery and so on. Those might affect how harsh or bland it tastes on top of everything else. Milk and sugar reduce harshness.

I find steeping times on the longer end to be good -- when I simmer on top of the stove, I can spend 15-20 minutes or more. I wouldn't steep in a cup that long, but 4 or 5 minutes might be a good trial.

Definitely steep in water, then remove tea and add honey/sugar then milk. I find that using honey or brown sugar adds a warmth/depth of flavour compared with plain sweeteners. You can taste it during the sweetening phase to check to see if it's as sweet as you want; the milk doesn't affect this too much. Milk levels I tend to judge by colour; cream tastes better than milk. And I always use cold milk, so I can drink it immediately.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 11:01 AM on December 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

I’ve found that, to get chai tea that tastes like what you get at coffee shops, it helps to use two bags of tea instead of one. (You could also make your own sweetened concentrate in bulk and then just heat it up (or not) and add milk to serve.)
posted by Weeping_angel at 11:06 AM on December 7, 2018 [3 favorites]

This is the way I make chai (Indian style):
Put 3/4 cup of water per cup to boil
Add 2 teaspoons sugar per cup as its boiling.
Also add spices (i just do crushed cardamom seeds and grated ginger). If your tea already has spices, skip this.
When the water boils, add 1 1/2 teaspoons tea (per cup)
Wait for it to froth, and turn an amber colour.
Add milk (straight from fridge). Add enough milk to get the tea colour (this I do by eye)
Wait for tea+ milk to just about boil
Strain into the cup.
posted by dhruva at 11:21 AM on December 7, 2018 [11 favorites]

Teabag-based chai is often too bland when brewed with one bag and too harsh when brewed with two bags because the spices need a longer steep-time than the black tea does -- oversteeped black tea can get astringent and/or bitter, and the spices have insufficient time to develop before that happens. The stovetop chai method starts with simmering spices in water and adds the tea later to get around this timing issue.

Experimenting with different brands and blends until you find one that you like may help, but for classic chai without access to a stovetop, concentrates are usually more reliable. You can make your own, or buy bottles/tetra-paks and keep them in the fridge (many, many coffee shops do this). I mostly agree with this ranking of widely-available concentrates, if you don't want to make your own but the concentrate method is feasible for you (though I'd rank Third Street and Tazo lower, personally -- I quite dislike Tazo).
posted by halation at 11:41 AM on December 7, 2018 [3 favorites]

I've never really had good results with the chai-spiced tea bags because fundamentally you want the spices to steep for a long time (to infuse lots of flavor) and the tea not to be in there too long or you'll get a ton of tannins and it will be bitter.

If you do want to use up your chai tea blend I would amp up the spices by adding other spices first - crushed cardamom pods, dried ginger powder, a little cinnamon powder - to the water before it boils, let it boil a little bit with the spices alone, and then add the spiced tea at the very end. I would heat up the milk in a separate pan and add the hot milk to the brewed tea and then strain and sweeten.

(Incidentally small pet peeve - chai just means tea - what coffee shops in the West call chai tea should properly be called masala chai or masala tea - but I realize that's a losing battle)
posted by peacheater at 11:45 AM on December 7, 2018 [3 favorites]

If you don't want to simmer the milk and tea together on the stove (which ultimately is the best way to do it), then it's acceptable -- if suboptimal -- to steep first and then add the milk afterward, British-style. Mixing the milk and water before steeping is not a good idea unless you're simmering on the stove top, because you really want to steep your tea as close to boiling as possible.

Where you'll get into trouble is that masala chai often wants more milk than, say, assam or your usual breakfast blends. But this can lead to drinking lukewarm chai. Even if you leave the milk out until it reaches room temperature, it'll still cool off your tea just a bit too much. My solution to this, if I'm making chai at work, is to use the steam wand attached to the espresso machine, but in your case I might recommend popping your milk in the microwave for 20-30 seconds or so. (I'm not suggesting a saucepan because if you wanted to get one of those involved you'd just be using the stovetop chai method, right?) You want to avoid curdling it, obviously, but you want to get it close to whatever your ideal drinking temperature is. That way, you can add enough to get the right taste without diluting the temperature too much.

Sweetener is 100% preference, so I can't help you there. I like honey, though.
posted by tobascodagama at 11:49 AM on December 7, 2018 [3 favorites]

This is my recipe - I make the spice blend ahead in a big batch so I can have it when I want it!
posted by ersatzkat at 12:03 PM on December 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

So I went to a chai workshop in San Francisco just a couple weeks ago! It was run by the woman who started Chico Chai.

Her method is to boil everything with water on the stovetop for ~ 10 min and then add milk and boil for a few more minutes. This gives really good results. Yes, you could just steep the tea mix in a pot with boiling water but that won't really extract the spice flavours the same way as cooking them on a full boil. Also the fat in the milk will help soak a few different flavours out of the spices during cooking.

Anyway, here's her brewing tips for loose chai.
posted by GuyZero at 12:03 PM on December 7, 2018

This is my jam. I have a cup every morning, I cannot function without it. I was taught by an Indian friend to make chai the proper way but... mornings.

I make my own masala chai blend. This is for a whole big batch of the stuff to last a long while:

1 box of cheap Indian dust tea (this is key to get that strong tea flavor without boiling the tea leaves). Go to an Indian grocer and just buy the cheapest box of tea you can find.
1/2 c. shelled cardamom
1/2 c. cinnamon sticks, broken into pieces
1/2 c. fennel seeds
1/2 c. dried ginger bits (this can be hard to find--our local food co-op carries it in bulk)
1/2 c. black peppercorns

Mix it all together, store it in a big jar.

Every morning I steep a scoop of that in a tea basket the same way I'd make any other tea. I add 1 tbl. sugar and a couple ounces of half-and-half.
posted by soren_lorensen at 12:43 PM on December 7, 2018 [3 favorites]

My wife loves the Tazo brand of chai tea bags. Her method is to heat half a mug/cup of milk in the microwave and then add the sugar while the water is boiling. She adds the tea bag and the water and then lets it steep (covered) for 5 minutes.
posted by terrapin at 12:59 PM on December 7, 2018

Is it heretical for me to suggest using sweetened condensed milk? I add a teaspoonful to my cup after the spices and tea have brewed. This avoids cooling down the tea with cold milk or cream.
posted by gox3r at 1:13 PM on December 7, 2018 [3 favorites]

I use Tao of Tea's instructions per the tin. Boil/simmer the water and tea leaves for 3 minutes (1 tsp per 8 oz liquid). Add milk (soy in my case) and simmer for 2 more minutes. I do equal parts milk and water. I don't raise the heat or anything when I add the milk - I just let it get warmed through. Sugar to taste - doesn't matter much when you add it in my opinion
posted by O9scar at 1:55 PM on December 7, 2018

First off, I admit that I dislike the mixes and most chais in coffee shops, because they are too sweet for me. I use an electric kettle to get the water to about 165F. I use a 16oz insulated travel mug. To the mug, I add one Yogi Chai Black or Chai Rooibos tea bag, 13 oz of water, 3 oz of cold vanilla soy milk, steep maybe 4-5 minutes, remove tea bag and done. Yum.
posted by acridrabbit at 3:08 PM on December 7, 2018

I buy an amazing chai spice blend from Teasource, which I mix with sweetened condensed milk (I do 2 tablespoons per can of milk, always left overnight so the spices really dissolve). I make loose leaf black tea with water and then spoon in the amount of desired spice milk goop. It is insanely good, and I have to really limit myself to it a couple weeks per year because I cannot stop drinking it while I have a jar of milk in the fridge (and then I gain 5 pounds in a week). My next chai week is scheduled for Christmas.

(Edited to add their recipe here!)
posted by Maarika at 7:16 PM on December 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, all. I marked a few best answers, but I appreciate all the input.

I just made a cup:
- 3 tsp Upton’s masala chai in a disposable filter bag in a large mug, steeped for 4 minutes in boiling water
- added maybe .25 tsp honey and stirred
- added a few drops of cold whole milk and stirred

And then I kept tasting and adding more honey and milk until it was drinkable. It’s definitely the best cup I’ve made, but it’s still not great. I wonder if the Upton’s blend just isn’t very good. I’ll investigate the homemade blends suggested above too. Thanks again!
posted by liet at 8:09 AM on December 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

Fwiw, it's the rare prefab masala chai blend (esp. from non-Indian companies) that I don't find weird-tasting, heavy handed on the clove (my house blend has no clove because it's so easy to ruin a cup with too much clove), and too little actual spice (pepper and ginger). If you have a store that sells bulk spices near you, go pick a little of all the cromulent spices up (it's cheap as heck in bulk) and experiment with your own blends until you find what you like.
posted by soren_lorensen at 4:45 PM on December 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

« Older Finding the Geographic Center of a Bunch of Points   |   Vegas hotel Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.