How Long Should You Steep Tea?

A good cup of tea keeps steeping time and temperature in mind. Adam Otvos/Shutterstock

Do you know how long should you let your tea brew for it to be most beneficial and taste the best? There are some people who let their tea steep for just a minute or so, while others wait much longer. The right way depends on science, tea type, and, of course, personal taste.

From Plant to Cup

tea leaves getting ready to dry
Fresh tea leaves are ready for drying. Goskova Tatiana/Shutterstock

There are many types of tea, but the four most common — black, green, oolong and white — all come from the same plant, Camellia sinensis. However, they are processed in different ways.

Black tea leaves are spread out to wither and dry, then they are rolled to release moisture. The leaves are spread out again and exposed to oxygen. This oxidation process gives the tea its distinctive taste and turns the green leaves copper. Then the leaves are dried with hot air and sorted by grade and size.

With green tea, after the leaves are spread out to wither, they are steamed, which stops the oxidation process, keeping the green color. Then the leaves are rolled, dried, and sorted.

Oolong tea goes through a partial oxidation process, so it doesn't get quite as dark or reach the same flavor profile as black tea.

It's the same process with white tea, as the oxidation process is stopped quickly. White tea is relatively rare; it comes from new growth, as the plant leaves are still unfurled and the buds are still unopened.

The Science of Brewing Tea

Do you remember learning about osmosis and diffusion back in science class? The process of seeping tea explains both concepts.

Place a teabag in water and see what happens. Water flows through the tea bag (osmosis) and the tea leaves dissolve through the water (diffusion), turning the water brown. The water also flows back into the tea bag, an effort to even up the concentration in and out of the bag.

So, the compounds in tea that give it its flavor and nutritional value seep into the water while you steep. But they don't all go oozing out at once. Different compounds enter the water at different rates based on their molecular weight.

The first chemicals to race in are those that give tea its smell and flavor, which is why you smell tea the minute you start to steep it. Next up are antioxidants including some light flavanols and polyphenols, as well as caffeine. The more tea steeps, the heavier flavonols, and tannins are released.

Time and Temperature Secrets

tea pot
Only black tea really requires boiling-hot water. Kulinenko G/Shutterstock

It's not just time, but it's also the temperature to consider when making the ideal cup of tea. Different teas prefer different temperatures to get the best taste and compounds.

Here are the ideal steeping times and temperatures, according to the experts, depending on the type of tea you're making.

Black tea

Steep your black tea for 3 to 5 minutes whether you're using tea bags or loose-leaf tea.

In most cases, this is the only water for tea that should be boiled at temperatures between 200 F and 212 F (93 to 100 C). Sencha Tea Bar suggests that more delicate black teas such as Darjeeling and Keemum should be brewed using water between 180 and 190 F (82 to 88 C).

Green tea

Green tea doesn't take as long to steep. Sencha Tea Bar suggests 2 to 4 minutes for loose leaf, 1 to 3 minutes for tea bags. Some fans say you can get a lovely cup in only 30 seconds. But remember, if you're drinking tea for its benefits, you have to let your tea steep. A study published in Beverages found you get more polyphenols the longer you allow your tea to steep, but 5 minutes is a good compromise.

Generally, the water for green tea should be heated right before boiling in order to avoid any bitter flavors.

Oolong tea

Most tea experts suggest about 5 to 7 minutes for loose leaf and 3 to 5 minutes if you're using oolong tea bags.

Oolong should be heated to just below boiling. You can also allow water to boil and then let it cool for about a minute before adding your tea.

White tea

It's a quick dip for white tea leaves, as they need only 2 to 3 minutes for loose leaf or 30 to 60 seconds with tea bags.

Water for white tea doesn't need to get very hot. Experts suggest just 160 F (71 C). If you don't want to use a thermometer, Sencha Tea Bar suggests removing water from the stovetop once tiny bubbles start forming at the bottom of the pot.

Herbal tea

Unlike the four above teas, herbal teas are made from a mix of flowers and plants like chamomile and ginger. Because the ingredients are varied, so are the brewing times and temperatures. Start with the recommendations on the container and adjust until you find the perfect taste for you.

View Article Sources
  1. McAlpine, Michael D and Ward, Wendy E. "Influence of Steep Time on Polyphenol Content and Antioxidant Capacity of Black, Green, Rooibos, and Herbal Teas." Beverages, vol. 2, no. 3, 2016, pp. 17. doi:10.3390/beverages2030017