As I’ve probably mentioned on this blog before, I’m a tea drinker. Black tea, brewed strong, with a bit of sugar and a splash of half and half (and no, whole milk isn’t the same, and if you offer me that non-dairy creamer drivel, I’ll abstain all together). My first cup of tea was served to me by my maternal Grandmother when I was about 4, in a fragile china cup, with a lot of cream and sugar. I felt all grown up and special, and I’ve loved tea ever since. Half of my heritage is English, so I think part of it is simply in my genetics. I have never learned to like coffee.
When the chai tea craze hit in the 90’s, I climbed right on board, and worked my way through Oregon Chai, Tazo Chai and 3rd Street Chai, along with most other concentrate brands out there. I generally found them way to sweet. A 3/4 cup serving (12 oz by the time you add milk) of Oregon Chai Original Concentrate has 6-7 tsp of sugar in it. Seriously, I want a cup of tea, not a soda.
As for the powered chai concentrates, I feel about them the same way I feel about non-dairy creamer. So much so that I once wrote a letter to the editor of a local weekly paper appealing to coffee places to please please stop thinking that this abomination was acceptable. If you wouldn’t serve instant General Foods International Coffee to your coffee drinkers, why serve the equivalent to your tea drinkers. The headline the paper chose for this diatribe? “Keep Powder Off The Streets”. Still makes me laugh.
I had pretty much stopped ordering chai in coffee shops due to the unpredictability of the product. I had thrown away more than one partial cup because it had cooled off enough to make the sweetness cloying (and I HATE throwing food away). But there was one exception. The home-made secret recipe chai from Durango Coffee Company(DCC). I LOVED this chai. Not too sweet, just the right amount of spice. Durango is a small enough town that I was able to contact the owner and beg for the recipe, playing on a mutual position we had both held on a local board of directors. He refused. When I moved to Washington, and could not possibly be a competing threat, I asked again. No dice. They wouldn’t even tell me the spices that were in it. But they did offer to sell me a bag of the spice mix and tell me how to brew it. Here’s my chance, I thought. I’ll be able to ID the spices. Nope. It came preground. Drat!
I had tried brewing my own chai over the years, and had collected a lot of not quite right recipes, including Oregon Chai copy cat attempts. Chai, referred to as masala chai in India, where it originated, almost always contains five main ingredients; cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, black pepper and cloves. Nutmeg, star anise, orange peel, vanilla, and fennel appear less often. Most call for putting whole spices, tea and vanilla in a sauce pan and seeping for about 15 minutes.
The problem here is three-fold. One, in my experience, adding milk to tea too soon seems to interfere with its ability to brew correctly (as I have experienced repeatedly when adding half and half to a cup of tea at a coffee shop too soon, not wanting to stand around for 4 minutes when my friends were ready to go). Plus, I wanted a concentrate, not a ready to drink brew. Second, brewing tea for more than about 4 minutes brings out tannins, and will make a brew that practically takes the enamel off of your teeth. Third, seeping whole spices for 15 minutes is not nearly long enough to extract much of their flavor.
When DCC explained their brewing method, it was a revelation. They brew the tea two-fold strong (because it will be diluted by half with milk later). After they remove the tea, they add the spices, let the mixture seep until cool, strain and store. And because their spices were ground, not whole, maximum flavor was extracted with very little energy input. It was time to revisit home-brewed chai using this new method (but first, I needed to use up all the spice mix DCC sent me, which took about a year).
This recipe isn’t perfect. I’m still playing with the ratio of spices. But it is quite good. Certainly better than anything I can purchase in the store. Play around with it yourself, and see what you think.
Homemade Chai Concentrate
Makes enough spice mix for a few batches of 16 oz concentrate, which happens to be the size I brew because that’s the size of my small teapot. Feel free to double the recipe or make the whole batch at once.
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon (or 1 1/2 tsp cinnamon chips or 1 3-inch piece stick cinnamon, broken up – you do know about my spice addiction, right?)
- 10 whole green cardamom pods
- 1-2 whole star anise pods (or to taste – I’m not a huge licorice fan, so tend to shy away from all anise and fennel flavors. I even struggle with chervil, tarragon and Thai basil for their anise overtones. I use one star anise)
- 8 whole cloves (I once had a locally brewed chai that had so much clove in it that my tongue went numb. There is a reason clove oil is used for tooth ache. It IS possible to have too much)
- 8 black peppercorns
- 4-6 pieces crystalized ginger (most recipes call for fresh, but then you can’t store the spice mix. And since I liked DCC’s mix so much, and clearly they were not using fresh ginger, I figured this would work. Plus I had a bunch of leftover crystalized ginger from a Christmas cookie baking extravaganza a few years ago. It never goes bad. You could use ground ginger here, but it tends to lose its potency pretty quickly. I’d go with a fresh 3-inch piece, chopped, if you don’t use the crystalized.
- 1/2 tsp freshly ground nutmeg (about 1/4 of a whole nutmeg – fresh ground really IS better here, and it grinds pretty quickly
To make the spice mixture
Grind all ingredients, including crystalized ginger, in a spice grinder (i.e. repurposed coffee grinder) until pulverized. Notes: whole cloves can be hard on plastics. The oils are somewhat caustic and they are hard little buggers. After killing the plastic lid of my old grinder with cloves, I now have one where the lid fits over the outside of the grinding mechanism, rather that down into it. I grind the cardamom with the outside husk and all. I throw in any preground spices as well, as it helps to mix it all together. Store in a sealed container.
To make tea concentrate:
- 4 tsp loose leaf black tea of your choice. Assam, a strong Indian tea, is the traditional choice. You can use tea bags instead. Just double the amount you would normally use for two cups of tea.
- 16 -20 oz water, filtered if your tap has chlorine
- 2 tbsp spice mix, above
Place tea and boiling water in a pot (I have this nifty tea brewer with a built-in straining liner, but any pot would work – just be sure to give the tea leaves room to expand. Don’t put them into a standard tea ball, it will be too small). Cover and seep tea for four minutes. Remove/strain out tea. Add 2 tablespoons spice mix to the hot tea liquid and stir. Cover and let sit until mixture reaches room temperature. Strain (most of the spice mix will sink to the bottom and you can just pour until you start to get to this layer. A clean coffee press would probably work great here too.) Store concentrate in the refrigerator for up to a week.
To make your tea, add 1/2 concentrate and 1/2 milk of choice to mug and heat in the microwave until hot. Stir in 1/4 tsp vanilla extract and sweetener of choice (one tsp of raw sugar is just about right for me) and enjoy. Note that a lot of recipes call for whole vanilla beans, seeped with the spice mixture, but buying one vanilla bean locally can run you $7-8, so I go with the extract. (You can get great deals on whole vanilla beans in quantity on eBay – I made my own extract this way.)
Miles Away Farm Blog © 2011, where about half the time, when I am making a cup of chai, my husband observes “shai-hulud”, which was the name the Fremen called the sand worms in the Frank Herbert science fiction book Dune. Yup, he’s kind of a nerd.