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Adding Milk to Tea

(Photo by A.C. Cargill, used with permission)
(Photo by A.C. Cargill, used with permission)

There is a long-running, healthy debate about milk and tea (when do you add milk? Should you or shouldn’t you? How much?) and several articles on this blog have contributed their opinions on these questions. As one recent article quite rightly concludes, the bottom line is that it is really about personal preference. However, I would like to argue that while there may not be a right time to add the milk to your tea, there is definitely a wrong one. And that is before it is fully steeped.

I am talking about black teas here. There may be some tea drinkers out there who enjoy their teas like this. But whilst it is completely up to those people to do as they please with their own tea, for the rest of us, adding the milk while the tea is still steeping can completely ruin the cup.

If you are steeping your tea in a teapot, this is probably not going to be a concern. The tea will be steeped and then served into individual cups where each person can add whatever they desire: milk, honey, sugar, etc. This is one of the most practical applications of the teapot: it allows people to enjoy tea together despite their different preferences for how to take it.

However, if you are brewing your tea in a cup or mug, the timing of the milk may start to become an issue. For me, it seems common sense to allow the tea to steep, remove the infuser (or sachet, teabag, or anything else you are using to steep it) and then add milk. But this basic element of tea etiquette seems to be sorely lacking in some parts of the general populace. On more than one occasion I have had a cup of tea ruined because the person serving it added the milk mere seconds after adding the hot water to the tea. Yes, the water is still hot, and yes the tea will continue to steep. But it is just not the same; the tea is not allowed to fully steep and release its flavours, and the cup ends up tasting a bit watery, unbalanced, and just generally sub-par.

This is mostly an issue in more generic cafes and eating establishments; I have never had this experience in a specialty tearoom. As a result of bad experiences, I quickly learned to always request the milk on the side when asked if I wanted milk. Most servers take this in their stride admirably, but more times than I would like they give me a slightly funny look. Admittedly, this happens less often now—perhaps a sign that tea is on the upswing. Nevertheless, the problem still lingers; the other day I did not quite catch it quickly enough, and ended up with milk plunked into my mug before the tea had fully steeped.

Another cup of tea ruined, and the debate about milk and tea continues.

See more of Elise Nuding’s articles here.

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4 responses to “Adding Milk to Tea”

  1. […] The tea flavor does not steep together with the milk. In fact, as Elise Nuding showed in her recent article, if you add milk while the tea is steeping, you get a bit of a mess. Making a stovetop version of […]

  2. I completely agree with Elise – premature milk delivers a grievous cup of tea. Oddly however (though I never touch it) sugar introduced immediately on steeping has no ill effect on the final brew color and strength.

    1. A.C. Cargill Avatar
      A.C. Cargill

      Thanks, Nigel! I, too, have experienced the grievous effects of trying to steep tea with milk already in the cup. :O

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