Alex Guarnaschelli is an Iron Chef, Food Network celebrity chef, author of Old-School Comfort Food and the executive chef at New York City’s Butter restaurants. Read her PEOPLE.com blog every Tuesday to get her professional cooking tips, family-favorite recipes and personal stories of working in front of the camera and behind the kitchen doors. Follow her on Twitter at @guarnaschelli.
I didn’t become a coffee drinker until I was in my thirties—I just drank tons of tea.
As a kid, I would wake up to my dad filling a kettle with ice-cold water. He would then fill his special teapot with the loose tea and bring the water to a boil. He would wait a minute for the hot water to settle and then pour it over the loose tea. My dad always pours the water all around the tea and then lets the tea steep, using a timer, for an average of four minutes. And then he pours.
The aroma is enough to tell a story about how it’s going to taste. My mouth would water sometimes at the sight and sound of the tea rushing into the mug and that initial waft of steam that hit my face. It’s like taking an aromatic tea nose bath!
This has become my tea ritual when I have time at home. In addition to a shelf of various teas and teabags, I also have a cabinet of different honey that just seems to grow behind my back.
Does that mean that I don’t use tea bags? No way. I love them, too, and whatever you can manage to make good tea, do it! When I use tea bags, I just stick to the idea that only one cup of water per tea bag works so the tea won’t be too weak or overly strong.
I use tap water for tea because I live in New York City and the water is pretty tasty. It does have minerals, chlorine and other elements that affect the flavor of the tea but I think I like that taste. Filtered water can be good too, if possible.
Also, start the tea process by bringing cold tap water to a boil. Why? Hot water can be stored in a heater and pick up more minerality, whereas cold water flows straight from the tap. Hot water also has less oxygen than cold water. These two factors affect taste and your tea will be better just by choosing the cold faucet instead of hot—pretty easy stuff.
Here are some of my favorites teas:
1. Earl Grey is an English black tea variety flavored with oil from bergamot orange rind, a citrus fruit with flavors somewhere between an orange and a lemon with a little grapefruit and lime thrown in. I love to drink Earl Grey with buttery cookies or cakes so the floral citrus notes bloom with the richness of butter. But I also love it with slices of fresh pear or apple.
2. Darjeeling tea has distinctive muscatel (a grape variety) grape aroma with a deep flavor. I love this with honey. I have sipped this tea with some simple cucumber and butter sandwiches (old school) and really loved the combo. It’s also great with a slab of cake or pie…just saying.
3. While chamomile is known for its smooth apple-like flavor, Egyptian chamomile will taste brighter and sweeter than any other kind due to Egypt’s climate. Adjust the flavor by adding a squeeze of lemon or honey. I give my daughter this when she needs that little nighttime flavor treat without calories or caffeine.
4. Fresh herb infusions: I have to say I don’t enjoy fresh mint in many places but a lot of stemmed leaves steeped in hot water for a few minutes and combined with a squeeze of fresh lime juice and some honey? Yum. I factor about ½ cup packed mint leaves per cup of water. I have also done this with fresh (washed) basil and lemon verbena when I can get it. Sage and rosemary, however, are too strong for my taste. These infusions are great after a heavy meal or when you want a natural treat.
Whatever cup you drink tea out of, and we all have our special cup or mug we love, just do what feels best to you. I personally love to drink small pours of tea out of an espresso cup at the restaurant because it keeps my tea hotter to pour it out in small cups. Enjoy your tea nose baths!