Putting milk in tea–yay or nay?
It might seem totally normal to you or completely crazy but one thing’s for certain: it divides tea lovers everywhere!
Where does the preference come from, and why do we do it?
There are a few reasons why we put milk in tea, and we’ll explore them, covering taste, health and other benefits. First, let’s check out where this favorite comes from.
What’s the Deal With Putting Milk in Tea?
You might associate putting milk in tea with good old Great Britain, and you’d be right. This notorious tea-loving nation brews up 165 million cups per day – that’s more than three for every person!
By far the most popular variety is black tea, the strong taste of which lends itself to milk, as we’ll see. What happened to make this such a phenomenon and standard practice?
Just like in tea’s historic homes of China and India, when tea made its way over to Britain during the days of the Empire, it became a part of culture and tradition.
As it grew in popularity, drinking tea was adopted by the upper classes. With it came one of the biggest debates which still surrounds putting milk in tea: before or after the water?
In English society, adding the milk second was a way to show that you were serving out of the finest china. This is because it was believed better quality crockery wouldn’t crack with the addition of boiling water, whereas cheaper cups needed to be cooled with milk.
This is still a big question, with polls and scientific studies devoted to it – Brits take their tea seriously!
Other than the order and the ritual, why has putting milk in tea has become so popular? Let’s take a look at some of the benefits.
Benefits of Milk in Tea
It may have been considered ‘proper’ in the days of yore, but there are lots of reasons for putting milk in tea.
Perhaps a major reason, especially with milk being so popular in black tea, is for taste. Milk softens those strong, malty flavors, cutting through the potential bitterness.
Of course, taste is very subjective, and there are lots of variables, including the variety of tea itself. Some teas are just naturally stronger or weaker, and it also depends on how long you steep the leaves or bag.
TIP: Take a look at our guides for best brewing times for taste. A standard is three minutes.
Tea made with a tea bag will always taste different from that made with some of our favorite loose leaves in a teapot, and even the cup itself could change things.
Back to our debate on when to add milk. When it comes to taste:
- Adding milk second allows you to regulate better the color of your brew, which is essential to taste. However, according to chemistry, it also causes the milk to heat unevenly, and the proteins break down, which can cause curdling and affect the taste.
- One thing most people seem to agree on is milk should never sit in the cup with a tea bag before you add water. This is because the milk will reduce the temperature of the water and affect the infusion. Here’s more on the optimum temperatures for brewing tea.
However, whether or not you like it as an addition, the milk is there to make the taste smoother.
Most tea is hot! And aside from not being able to enjoy it at high temperatures, it could be unsafe.
Putting milk in tea is a great way to cool it down – we all want to enjoy it as soon as possible, right?!
Just be careful not to add too much milk to cool the drink down as it could ruin the whole tea drinking experience.
TIP: Cool your tea by leaving a teaspoon in it. The metal will help by conducting the heat, leaving you to add milk or not to your taste.
As with all brews, we expect some of the benefits of milk in tea to be health-related. The substances in tea leaves contain antioxidants called catechins. Antioxidants can help combat health conditions, such as:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
Antioxidants fight against premature cell aging and death, which can lead to these issues. Tea alone won’t cure or prevent them, but it can be part of a healthy diet.
What about putting milk in tea, does that affect the potential health benefits? There has been some research into how milk binds with these catechins, making them more complex and hard for our bodies to absorb.
However, as with many health pluses and minuses, there is no major evidence that the small amount of milk we add to tea has a major effect. In fact, some scientists think it merely slows the process of absorption if anything.
Other than that, adding some milk to your tea will bring you all the health benefits of milk, such as extra calcium and protein.
By now we know where some of the reasons for putting milk in tea come from and why we might do it. Let’s find out which tea’s go best with this popular dairy addition.
What Kind of Tea Do You Put Milk In?
As we know, some types of tea are well-known companions of milk. What are the main varieties that work well?
- Black tea: the bold, astringent and malty flavors of Assam and Ceylon are softened by the milk
- Blends: where the tea has already been mixed, milk can add to the variety. The creaminess of the milk works with sweeter flavors in black tea such as chocolate and vanilla. Even Earl Grey, with its citrus-like bergamot, can be complemented by milk.
- Masala Chai: milk is integral to this sweet and spicy Indian favorite. It creates the creaminess and offsets the spices.
Find out which tea suits you with this quiz.
Herbal Tea With Milk
Some people would be even less likely to add milk to herbal teas than ‘true’, Camellia sinensis varieties, but it can work.
You’ll want to avoid any with really delicate flavors, as milk will overpower them and those flavors should be enjoyed on their own. The grassy flavors of green tea are a prime example.
Here are some ideas for what works for herbal tea with milk:
- Chamomile, daffodil and valerian: these are sweet and balmy yet have strength so can handle milk’s creaminess.
- Rooibos: this nutty and buttery tea is quite sweet already, and those are flavors that go well with milk in food as well.
In general, never add milk to Japanese green teas or oolong as it is too complex. White teas are also too delicate.
Fruit teas are tricky as they’re strong enough, but the sweetness is sharp, which could result in a sour taste when combined with milk.
Here are some great herbal teas to enjoy without milk.
What’s Best, Milk or Cream in Tea?
If you like the idea of milk in tea, a lot of its appeal has to do with its creaminess, especially when it comes to complementing those stronger flavors.
But does that mean cream works just as well? Let’s find out.
Back to merry England and there is a popular item called a ‘cream tea’ but beware! This is about the whole afternoon, with scones, cream and jelly. They don’t actually put cream in the tea.
In the northwest German region of East Friesland, you might encounter something called East Frisian tea. It’s a small serving of strongly brewed Assam, about the size of an espresso shot. To this is added heavy cream and sugar.
In Hong Kong too they have a sweetened condensed milk tea, but not cream specifically. And we’re familiar with the very milky Masala Chai and bubble teas – but no cream.
It seems it’s not a standard idea, but undoubtedly there will be those that enjoy cream in tea. Just take note that if milk can overpower subtle flavors with its creaminess, cream will do this ten times over! It may also curdle in hot drinks.
What’s the Best Milk for Tea?
Now that we know we’re mostly putting milk in tea as opposed to any other dairy product, which works best?
Considering how much milk can affect the taste of tea, its fat content is important as this is what gives that creamy taste.
Here’s our guide to the different types and the best milk for tea:
- Non-fat won’t offer any milky taste to cut strong flavors and may just water down the tea
- 2% gives the best balance of soft creaminess and subtlety
- 3.5% is probably the limit before the cream will overpower any tea flavors
If you don’t take dairy but still like the balance milk gives, there are some good options:
- Soya milk is a good go-to as it has a lighter flavor so won’t affect the taste of the tea too much
- Oat milk is sweet but again, it’s a subtle flavor. Consider having it with teas that already offer sweet flavors so it doesn’t clash
What’s the Verdict With Putting Milk in Tea?
Now you know the ‘rules’, benefits, customs and debates around putting milk in tea, you might have even more ways to enjoy your favorite beverage!
This particularly is a matter of taste, so with the very small amounts of milk typically used you can’t go far wrong in terms of health. Always follow any professional medical advice that you’ve been given.
There are some consistency considerations, and it’s worth thinking about getting your brewing technique right so the tea’s ready for milk.
All in all, whether you like it creamy, sweet, milky, strong or just as it is, it really is up to you.
What are your rules for putting milk in tea?
Tell us in the comments below!