We put salt in our tea so you don't have to
Despite US chemistry boffin claiming it improves the taste, we respectfully disagree
Poll It's well established that the British are an eccentric people. Among their national obsessions is drinking tea – they consider themselves experts – and one way to trigger the entire United Kingdom is to fuck with the formula.
But that is exactly what American chemistry professor Michelle Francl has done with her new book, Steeped: The Chemistry of Tea, which was published this week through the Royal Society of Chemistry.
Therein, Francl proposes that a tiny bit of salt – not enough to taste – improves tea because "the sodium ions in salt block the bitter receptors in our mouths."
This quite literally brewed a storm in a teacup because the madcap Brits cannot fathom why anyone would actually do this. Tea isn't really bitter anyhow, not in the way coffee is, and if you don't like how tea tastes, no one's forcing you to drink it. This at least coming from someone who drinks less than one cup of tea a week.
Naturally, the scandal has its own #TeaGate hashtag on Twitter or X or hellscape, whatever you want to call it, with observers noting that Americans mixing tea with salt water can have drastic effects.
In 1773, American colonists threw 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor to protest against high taxes on the product and the perceived monopoly of the East India Company. It was one of the events that led to the American Revolutionary War against Britain.
The supposed furor over salty tea (saltea?) moved the United States Embassy in London to issue a statement:
Today's media reports of an American Professor's recipe for the "perfect" cup of tea has landed our special bond with the United Kingdom in hot water.
Tea is the elixir of camaraderie, a sacred bond that unites our nations. We cannot stand idly by as such an outrageous proposal threatens the very foundation of our Special Relationship.
Therefore we want to ensure the good people of the UK that the unthinkable notion of adding salt to Britain's national drink is not official United States policy. And never will be.
Let us unite in our steeped solidarity and show the world that when it comes to tea, we stand as one.
The U.S. Embassy will continue to make tea in the proper way – by microwaving it.
Yes, it's all a bit silly, isn't it? The closing line being a jab at the last time the two nations nearly came to blows over how to make the beverage.
How can one woman be so, so wrong?
Anyway, in the spirit of hard-hitting investigative journalism, The Register decided to scrutinize the claims. Francl is, after all, a scientist. Her book is reputed to be the result of three years of research exploring the more than 100 chemical compounds that are found in the drink. The work "puts the chemistry to use with advice on how to brew a better cup," according to her publisher.
So it would be remiss of us not to test her theories. We brewed two cups of tea, one with a pinch of salt, one without. Note that we did this the correct way:
- Teabag in mug
- Add boiled water from a kettle, not a microwave, a kettle
- Immediately add milk. This counteracts the bitterness of the tannins and also stops that weird floaty brown stuff from forming on the surface
- Leave teabag in for ... pfft ... I dunno, it depends how desperate you are for a cuppa. Let's say a minute, two tops
- No sugar
It isn't clear from reports as to what stage the salt should be added so we put it in last, just a pinch, as you would with sugar (if you're a baby).
The first experiment did not go well. Alternating swigs from each cuppa to compare and contrast the body and flavor, I immediately noticed that one of these teas tasted salty. So a pinch is too much, you're not supposed to be able to taste it, and I didn't like it. Down the sink it went, and my partner is now three bags down instead of two.
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Back in the lab, while my actual cuppa was getting cold, I scrubbed the mug of all contaminants, coated a finger tip in a thin layer of sodium chloride, then dipped it in the tea. There can't have been more than 100 grains going in.
Take two. Having burned my mouth on the freshly made saltea, I waited a few minutes then took another run. It was slightly more appetizing, but with each sip of the saltea I couldn't help but feel that something was missing, something inherent to what makes tea tea. And compared to my regular cup, there was a sense of a sharpness that simply should not be there.
Normal tea now drained, I slowly nursed the saltea, hating myself slightly more with each gulp, wondering why I took on this assignment when I'm a coffee drinker, and suppressing the growing urge to urinate. I drank it all and bitterly regret it.
We advise you not to try this at home. It won't kill you, but it certainly won't do you any good either. I had secretly hoped for this to be some sort of revelation in tea drinking, but it just isn't.
Vote in our poll on the perfect tea and don't forget to provide detailed explanations in the comments as to why my method is completely wrong. ®