The Right Amount Of Time To Steep Herbal Tea, From An Herbalist
Every tea drinker will have their own approach to brewing up the perfect cup. But according to herbalist, author of The Herbal Kitchen, and expert in all things tea Kami McBride, there is one crucial part of the process that many people get wrong—and we're missing out on some key nutritional benefits because of it.
Why you should steep herbal tea for 15 minutes.
On a recent call with mbg, McBride noted that she sees many people steeping their herbal tea bags for just a minute or two before taking their first sip. While there's nothing wrong with doing a quick steep, she notes that letting your tea sit for longer can unlock more flavor and nutritional benefits.
This rings especially true if you're using tea bags instead of loose-leaf herbs. McBride explains that when you crush up herbs to form the small pieces that go into bags, you increase their surface area and expose them to more oxygen, which can dull their flavor. "It's much less potent because of how it's stored," McBride says of herbal tea in a bag.
While it can depend on the type of tea ("true teas" like black, green, and oolong each have their own unique steep times), McBride says you'll want to let most herbal brews sit for 15 minutes. This should leave enough time for the antioxidant-rich polyphenols, the plant compounds1 that make herbal teas so healthy, to completely come through in your cup.
After McBride encouraged me to experiment with different steep times, I took to my kitchen and made two identical cups of chai rooibos: one sat for 2 minutes, the other 15. The difference between a quick dip and a longer steep became clear right away.
The long steep's color was many shades darker, while its smell was actually a bit more muted. (The volatile compounds2 that give tea its aroma tend to be the first to fade into the air.) The taste was much richer and—to borrow a wine term—full-bodied. I could pick up on more of the tea's spices and flavors the longer I sipped, whereas the 2-minute steep was pretty one-note. Count me a convert!
How to steep the perfect cup of herbal tea:
- Whether you're using tea bags or loose tea, place a cover over it as it steeps. Covering will help more of those beneficial compounds stay in your cup and keep your tea warm.
- Set a timer for 15 minutes. No cheating! While you wait, prep the spot where you'll enjoy your cup. If you're drinking your tea to unwind or de-stress, for example, you could fluff up some pillows on the couch, take out your journal or a good book, prepare a relaxing snack or supplement—the works!*
- After the 15 minutes is up, remove the bag or strain out the loose tea, try the brew, and see what you think. It may have gotten too cold (in which case, give it a quick microwave) or be too strong for your liking. If that's the case, experiment with using fewer herbs next time. McBride recommends starting with 1 tsp to 1 cup of water and working your way up from there.
- Add a squeeze of sweetener, a dash of your milk of choice, or some extra spices to make your cup feel special.
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.