Although the tea bag is a marvel of convenience, it does not make the best tea, as the leaves are unable to circulate in the hot water and fully release their essence. For the best cup of tea, begin with loose tea leaves.
Your two basic choices are black tea and green tea. Both come from the same plants; what distinguishes them is where the plant was grown and how the leaves are processed. The highest-quality teas are from plants grown at high altitudes whose newest leaves and unopened buds are harvested by hand.
Whereas black tea leaves are fermented, heated and then dried, green tea leaves are steamed and dried without undergoing fermentation. Oolong (Chinese for "black dragon"), a third category, is partially fermented and is more reminiscent of green tea than black.
When brewed, black tea leaves produce a full-flavored beverage. Green tea leaves yield a much more delicate flavor. Within these two categories, there are wide variations in taste as well.
When you peruse the offerings of a tea merchant, you will find teas from countries such as China, England and Japan, and blends that combine both green and black teas.
For optimum taste, spoon loose tea leaves into the bottom of a pot, which allows the hot water to circulate around the leaves and extract the most flavor. If you prefer not to have a few tea leaves in the bottom of your cup, use a strainer or a pot that comes with its own infuser, or buy a large metal-mesh tea ball.
To make a pot of warming, full-flavored tea, follow these simple steps:
1. Choose a ceramic teapot that is just the size of the amount of tea you are making. In a kettle, bring a teapotful of water to a boil.
2. Pour the boiling water into the teapot, cover the pot with its lid and set it aside to warm. Fill the kettle with 1 cup fresh cold spring water or filtered water per cup of tea you are brewing and bring it just to a boil.
3. Turn off the kettle and let it sit for a minute. (Like coffee, tea is best when made with water that is slightly below boiling temperature.) Empty the teapot. Add 1 level teaspoon of loose tea per cup to the teapot, to the teapot's infuser or to a large metal-mesh tea ball. Add the infuser or tea ball, if using, to the pot and pour in the hot water. Cover the pot.
4. Let the tea steep for 1 to 3 minutes for green tea and 3 to 6 minutes for black tea. Oolong teas take from 6 to 8 minutes, while herbal teas need 8 to 12 minutes.
5. Stir the tea in the pot or in the infuser, or swirl the tea ball around in the tea to extract more flavor from the leaves, then remove the infuser or ball from the pot. If necessary, pour the tea through a strainer into each cup.
6. If you have made more than 2 cups, use a tea cozy or wrap the teapot in a thick kitchen towel to help keep the tea hot.
Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Kitchen Companion: The A to Z Guide to Everyday Cooking, Equipment and Ingredients (Time-Life Books, 2000)