If you grew up like me, you were far-too familiar with that damned Lipton tea bag. All your teas tasted the same – Lipton-flavored, and with enough sugar to rival your last batch of Kool-Aid.

It didn’t really have much flavor, but boy… put that sugar in it, and it was a wrap! That was all I needed!

But now, as an adult, I’m realizing just how rough that was on my insides. All that sugar… and I’m a recovering emotional eater? For my own good, I had to let it go. I just couldn’t do it anymore.

That is, until one dark December night, Eddy and I took Mini-me to the Holiday Market at Union Square… where we saw this:

loose leaf teas!

loose leaf teas (and crystallized ginger!)!

loose leaf teas

Loose leaf teas, courtesy of Spices and Tease’s booth at the Union Square Holiday Market. Normally, they can be found at the Grand Central Market in NYC

Of course, not knowing anything about what I was looking at, I became curious. What’s with the dried fruit? What’s the black stuff?

Ohhh, boy, did I have a lot to learn.

Tea is little more than the byproduct of boiling things in water – it’s the leftover broth. You could say that tea must come from specific kinds of leaves, but then what about those of us who might like a “hibiscus strawberry” or “samurai chai blueberry” tea? And, you could say that tea is only dried herbs and fruits, but those of us who make raw ginger tea – the epitome of epic homemade tea-making – would probably laugh at you. Loudly.

You can make a flavorful broth out of just about anything, but how? You can do it the old school way, like my mother-in-law, who just just toss some chopped ginger in a cup with some hot water and let it sit with some honey… but that doesn’t work with everyone or for every tea. What do you do?

Meet… my tea ball.

loose-leaf-teas12

..at least that’s what I call it. The mesh strainer is often used in the same way you’d use a colander or a cheesecloth – the goal is to keep some things in and other things out. There are lots of ways to enjoy loose teas – there are even special pots and thermoses that cater exclusively to the loose tea drinker – but the mesh strainer is most accessible across the US, and also offers possibly the best value: you can use it beyond teas, even adding herbs and black peppercorn to it and tossing it in water, to make a quick stock without having to fish it all out afterwards.

We can definitely discuss different tea pots and brewing methods, but for beginner’s purposes, I’m talking about balls.*

My desk...pardon the mess.

My desk…pardon the mess.

For this, you’ll need your mesh strainer, your cup, your tea, and your means of heating up your water. That could be a tea pot, a saucepan, a microwave (although, I’d really rather you didn’t; aside from the fact that microwave tea is always scalding hot, it’s just not ideal), an empty coffeemaker or Keurig. Whatev. Your choice.

Loose leaf vanilla teas, with the mesh strainer hiding in the back!

Loose leaf vanilla teas, with the mesh strainer hiding in the back!

Loose tea is… fun. The possibilities are so, so endless. There’s totally nothing “new” to it – I’m fully admitting how terribly behind the curve I am on it – and lots of people have been making tea without “tea bags” for ages. Your mesh strainer serves as your “re-usable tea bag” in this instance – remember how I told you clean eating helps save the environment? – and gives you countless cups of tea.

There’s also the matter of flavor. With bagged teas, both the strength and flavor of the tea are determined by the manufacturer. What if you want an extra-strong ginger tea? What if you want a chamomile tea, but don’t want to spend your entire day snoozing? Unless you’re going to put two bags in your tea instead of one, or unless you’re going to put your bag in weak water – and don’t both of those options feel like a waste? – you don’t get much of a say. Using your own mesh tea strainer with your favorite teas will make a huge difference.

Also, should you deign to go beyond the typical flavors of teas, you’re going to be paying an arm, a leg, a first born and quite possibly an eyeball. When I purchased chamomile tea – clearly, I’m a major fan of chamomile – with lemon zest in bags, it was $13 for 1.65oz. The loose canister of tea I’d purchased from a local joint was $11 for 1.5oz. It doesn’t sound like a big deal, until you think about the fact that the weight of the bagged teas…includes the weight of the tea bags. Hell, how much actual tea am I getting? How much of my money is paying for stuff I can’t drink?

Loose teas it is.

Loose teas can often be found in the tea and coffee section of your favorite grocery store, and have tons of different flavors that can be enhanced with herbs (basil, sage, rosemary), juices (lemon, orange, lime) syrups or different kinds of sweeteners (stevia, maple syrup, honey, kinds of sugars.) We can explore that later. Just the basics today.

Boil your water. Once your water reaches your desired temperature, pour it into your cup. Put your designated sweetener in your water. Prep your balls.*

fill your strainer

fill your mesh strainer with tea; in this case, black tea with vanilla extract

loose leaf teas

the tea after dunking the strainer in the cup a few times. black tea is quick like that.

Fill your tea ball with your loose tea. If you have a strainer like mine, ensure that the latch is secure so that your strainer doesn’t open up in your drink. Nothing better than drinking tea bits unintentionally. Slowly place it in your water.

loose leaf teas

Secure the chain around the handle of your mug, just because it gets kinda frustrating fishing your ball out of your cup. Squeeze your stuff in it, pour in your drink, and you’re ready.

Squeeze in your lemon!

Squeeze in your lemon!

Pour it up. Get your sip on. (And – coming soon – use it to make your own soda pop!)

Get your sip on.

Get your sip on.

And it’s that simple.

Go forth and find blends that tickle your fancy! They can be sweet, floral, subtle, smoky, and sleepy-time. If you’re wondering where I get my own teas, I hit up Harney & Sons (Broome St. in SoHo), Teavana (on Broadway and W. 80th in UWS), or McNulty’s Tea and Coffee Co. near the Sheridan Square stop on the 1.

What are your favorite tea blends? What tea suppliers did I miss? What more should we talk about when it comes to teas? Let’s hear it!

*You girls are so silly.