Properly made, tea is delicious.
Some people, however, have never had a well-made cup of tea. Despite this, making tea doesn’t have to be difficult.
Here, we break down one of the most basic elements of good tea: steeping time.
Can you steep tea too long?
In general, black, white, green or oolong tea should not steep for more than 2-3 minutes. Steeping tea leaves too long will release tannins into the water, making the drink bitter. Herbal tea can often steep indefinitely, as can pu erh tea. Some green teas also do well with cold brewing.
The best steeping times for green, black and oolong tea
If you’re using a tea bag, it’s important to know how long a tea bag should sit in water. Even if you’re a loose leaf tea drinker, you’ll need to take the tea leaves out of your cup at the right time for the best taste.
This differs by the type of tea you’re using, as explained in the link above. In other words, knowing how long oolong tea should steep for won’t help if you’re trying to make a cup of white tea.
The short version is as follows.
- White – 4-5 minutes
- Green – 3 minutes
- Oolong – 1-5 minutes
- Black – 3-5 minutes
- Pu erh – 3 minutes
- Herbal – 5+ minutes
Some green tea varieties, such as sencha, can also be brewed more or less indefinitely by placing one and a half teaspoons of loose leaf tea per eight ounces of cold water in your refrigerator.
Using this method, the tea will brew in around three hours. Some green tea types will still get bitter this way, however, so use with care.
What happens when you steep tea too long?
The longer you steep tea in hot water, the more bitter it tastes. The additional heating causes additional tannins to be released from the leaves, turning the tea more undrinkable the longer you leave it alone.
How to tell if your tea has steeped too long
One trick is to watch the water while your tea brews. The color of green tea will change from a transparent green to a dark green and then almost brown if it has brewed too long. Likewise, black, oolong and other tea varieties will darken the longer they steep.
The easiest way to tell if your tea has been in hot water too long is the taste. Oversteeped tea carries a very bitter taste, similar to what happens if you use water that’s too hot for green or white tea.
If you do end up with tea that’s slightly too bitter, not all hope is lost. Learning about the best sweeteners for tea can save tea that’s brewed a little too long, and some tea drinkers actually prefer a stronger, slightly more bitter taste.
Sometimes, though, there’s no saving a cup of tea. If you leave your tea brewing for more than a few minutes too long, it will be completely undrinkable and you’re better off starting over.
Herbal and pu erh teas
While green, white, black and oolong tea will all get bitter if it steeps too long, that isn’t the case for herbal teas and pu erh teas.
Herbal tea, of course, is not true tea, as it isn’t made from the leaves of the tea plant. Instead, it’s a mix of herbs, fruits and other ingredients that provide a pleasant taste when steeped in hot water.
You can steep most herbal teas for as long as you want. In fact, doing so might even improve the taste. That said, it’s important to try this out before assuming it’s fine. If your herbal tea has certain kinds of fruit or herb in it, steeping too long will absolutely still ruin the flavor and may even add bitterness. Check with your tea provider to be sure you can safely steep it for longer.
Pu erh tea is another special case. Although it is made from the leaves of the tea plant, the way it’s treated means that it won’t get bitter no longer how it steeps. This isn’t a very traditional way to brew pu erh, where it’s never steeped for more than 30 seconds at a time, but it can still be done without adding the characteristic bitterness of green or black tea.
Uses for oversteeped tea
When faced with very bitter tea, it’s tempting to just throw out the water and leaves. However, there are actually quite a number of home uses for brewed tea leaves.
Just a few examples are to cool the oversteeped water to room temperature and give it to your plants, which will appreciate the drink no matter how bitter.
You can also use wet tea leaves to remove stains in some cases, or even make a face mask. Just be sure you let them reach room temperature, so you don’t burn yourself.
For more details on how to reuse loose leaf tea leaves and teabags, read our full article on the topic.
Weird fact: oversteeped tea can help with diarrhea
According to tradition, tea got its start as a type of medicine. From there, people grew to love the flavor and effects of drinking tea and it became one of the world’s most popular beverages.
Today, very few people use tea as a medicine, and if they do it’s in the form of concentrated tea extracts. However, if you find yourself with some bitter, oversteeped tea and just happen to have an upset stomach, take heart! Scientists have found that tea steeped for 15 minutes or longer can serve as a home remedy for diarrhea.
This obviously isn’t a typical reason for drinking tea, but it’s still interesting to know.
The three elements of tasty tea
Many elements of tea preparation go into a delicious, relaxing cup.
For example, those wondering how to make black tea taste better are often surprised to learn that the amount of tea you add into your cup can affect the final taste. This means that knowing how much loose leaf tea for a cup is important. Although it can vary based on tea type, one teaspoon per six ounces of water is the typical recommendation for this specific issue.
Another element is understanding the right water temperature for tea. Only black tea and herbal tea should use boiling water. Green, white and oolong teas should be hot, but not boiling. If you need an exact measure, try between 160 to 175 degrees Fahrenheit.
The third important element is how long you leave your tea to steep. The longer you steep tea leaves, the more tannins they release into the water. This gives oversteeped tea a bitter taste that’s not very pleasant.