7 Ways to Cook With Tea Leaves

Green tea leaves
Vicky Wasik

In The Essential Scratch and Sniff Guide to Becoming a Wine Expert, as friendly an introductory text as you're likely to find about anything, Richard Betts has a great motto: "Wine is a grocery, not a luxury."

For all that you can fuss about wine, at the end of the day it's about opening a bottle and drinking something delicious. Yes, wine should feel special, but it should also be deeply ordinary. And it belongs in more than just a wine glass. A bottle of wine is just as good as dinner as with dinner. Some wine you drink, and some wine you cook with, mayhaps by splashing some into a hot pan of schmaltz and browned mushroom bits and whipping together a pan sauce in less time than it takes to set the table.

The same is true for tea. I can spout off about the rarified world of specialty tea for longer than anyone has patience, but tea's glamorous side should never get in the way of the pleasure of having it every day. And just like wine, tea is as much a cooking ingredient as a drink on its own.

Tea's distinctive flavors—woodsy and vegetal or ripe and sweet, pleasantly astringent or perfumed—add layers to sweet and savory dishes that no other ingredient can touch. Sure, you may have heard of green tea ice cream and tea-smoked duck, but a pinch of tea leaves can do so much more. Here are some ideas to make full use of its grocery potential.

Deeper-Flavored Smoothies

Green tea smoothie
Autumn Giles

Does your smoothie recipe call for any ice blended in? Why not replace that ice with frozen cubes of tea? Brew your tea strong so it can stand up to all the produce you'll add on top; dark, fruity black teas for fruit smoothies and light, springy green teas for vegetable-based numbers like kale. The tea's subtle sweetness and natural astringency add a complex bite to smoothies while keeping the focus solidly on the fruit.

Tea Cookies

Dried tea leaves
Vicky Wasik

Tea and cookies? Nice. Tea in cookies? Even nicer. The trick is to use a dark tea, like a black or roasted oolong, and grind it into a fine powder in a spice grinder so it incorporates well into a dough and holds up to all that butter and sugar. A tablespoon or two of tea is enough to gently flavor a batch of buttery shortbread. Darker tea will amplify the cookies' buttery qualities while adding bittersweet tannic, fruity, and roasted qualities—an easy way to spice up a simple butter cookie.

Take care with your flour if you decide to add even more tea leaves for a stronger flavor. Tea absorbs water much like flour does, and too much tea can dry out a cookie. So if you want an especially strong tea cookie, cut back on the flour by a tablespoon or two.

Green Tea Chicken Noodle Soup

Green tea leaves
Vicky Wasik

While the West is most familiar with using tea in sweet applications, in China, tea-as-food is frequently a savory affair, one that often calls on tea's purported medicinal qualities to cut back on greasy ingredients. Enter chicken soup flavored with green tea—just a pinch or two, simmered in the stock until the leaves turn tender—to add subtle grassy and creamy flavors to the broth. Here's an occasion where cheaper teas are actually a better choice; budget greens often have a more roasted, savory taste that plays especially well with chicken and noodles.

Traditional Chinese medicine claims tea makes for a less greasy, more restorative soup. I'll just say that tea brings a refreshing snap and subtle depth that plays well with onion, garlic, and ginger. Try it in your very own homemade instant noodles.

Tea-Enriched Oatmeal

Ground tea leaves
Vicky Wasik

So those green tea noodle soups? Well in China, they're often breakfast, so let's keep that theme going with another breakfast dish begging for some tea: oatmeal. We suggest you bake your oatmeal instead of boil it for a richer, creamier breakfast that develops a nice crust on top, but before you do, steep some black or dark oolong tea leaves in that scalded milk for 15 minutes before straining them out and proceeding with our recipe as normal. If you are adding tea to your oatmeal, take note it'll absorb some of that liquid, so instead of the 1 3/4 cups of milk we call for, start with a full 2 cups.

Ice Cream and Custards

Green tea ice cream
Max Falkowitz

Far and away, my favorite use of tea in food is with custards like crème brûlée and ice cream. Steeping leaves in hot dairy for an hour or two, and then straining, results in a wonderful balance of sweet and nutty flavors that also make the custard taste even more custardy. Grassy-yet-savory powdered matcha ice cream is the go-to choice here, but don't underestimate good chai or a roasted oolong for a deep, rich tea flavor.

Tea-Smoked Everything

Green tea leaves
Vicky Wasik

One of the most iconic dishes to emerge from Sichuan province—a major tea-producing region of China—is tea-smoked duck, a whole duck slowly imbued with the smoke from smoldering dry tea leaves. It's a classic dish, and well worth trying at home (wrap a wok tightly in aluminum foil, inside and over the lid, to do it right on the stovetop), but there's no reason duck is the only bird worth receiving the tea-smoked treatment. Try this recipe for marinated chicken wings smoked with green tea leaves, then use the same principles for quail, turkey, even pork loin. The tea's smoky bite is more delicate than wood, a little sweeter and less overtly oaky, while still providing enough savory bite to give the meat some depth.

And to Drink

Sage punch with lemon slices
Elana Lepkowski

Ultimately, tea is just an herb, and like rosemary, sage, cilantro, and the like, it belongs in your cocktail glass. Now the best tea cocktail I've ever tasted is nothing more than high mountain oolong leaves steeped in gin for a couple of weeks—the tea's buttery, airy side smooths out those juniper rough edges for a drink so smooth you can slurp it down neat. But if you want to get into actual cocktail recipe territory, try out smoky lapsang souchong in this sage and gin punch, or the earthy kick of gunpowder tea with gin and celery. Yes, you may be noticing a gin theme here, because gin's vegetal bite takes especially well to tea, but it's not the only option. This pu-erh old fashioned pairs whiskey with the dark, rich, faintly medicinal flavor of aged, fermented tea for a deeper kick than plain rye or bourbon could deliver.

And just like that, we're back to cooking our tea while drinking it, too.