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Tea Basics

Martha Stewart Living Television

In the United States, about 80 percent of the tea we drink is iced, but more and more Americans are discovering the pleasure of a cup of hot tea.

There are four main categories of tea, all originating from the tea plant (Camellia sinensis), a shrub related to the magnolia. Black tea, the most common, is fermented by exposing the leaves to air for a prescribed amount of time, then heating and drying them, resulting in a dark color and a full, rich flavor. Green tea leaves are dried but not fermented; the tea they produce is light green in color, with a mild, grassy flavor. Oolong tea is semifermented and has a taste somewhere in between that of black and green teas. White tea is extremely difficult to find outside of China, where it is produced; it is a delicate tea made of only the leaf tips and buds of the tea plant.

Numerous varieties of tea exist, often named after the place of origin of the tea leaves. Darjeeling, for instance, is a very popular variety of black tea with a subtle, flowery bouquet, named after a district in the foothills of the Himalayas. Gunpowder is a fine green tea from China, and Formosa oolong is a high-grade oolong from Taiwan. Packaged teas like English breakfast tea or Irish breakfast tea are often a blend of two or more varieties, while the distinctive Earl Grey is black tea flavored with oil of bergamot, a type of bitter orange.

To make hot tea, boil your water in a pot separate from that in which you brew and serve the tea. Martha uses a nonreactive pot, which heats the water quickly. For brewing tea, use an earthenware or porcelain teapot (for the latter, you'll almost certainly need a tea cozy to keep the liquid hot) -- or, if you're entertaining or want the most elegant presentation possible, use a silver teapot. Martha likes to heat the teapot by pouring in boiling water and pouring it out again before adding the tea and more boiling water.

The tea-bag was invented in 1904 by a New York tea merchant named Thomas Sullivan. Though tea-bags are portable and convenient, it is much more elegant -- and, many believe, more flavorful -- to brew loose tea using a tea infuser or a tea strainer. Tea infusers are usually made of stainless steel, either perforated or finely meshed; you place loose tea inside, and immerse it in the teapot. To use a tea strainer, a utensil in silver or stainless-steel with a handle and a shallow, finely pierced bowl, scoop the loose tea directly into the teapot. Once the tea is brewed, hold the strainer between the spout of the teapot and your cup or rest it on the rim of the cup while pouring the tea to catch the leaves.

Enjoy your tea as is, add sugar, or, in quintessential British fashion, add milk. For a traditional British late-afternoon tea, serve with cookies, small sandwiches, breads, or cakes.