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Wed, 27 Mar 2013

The Nerd's Guide to Tasty Tea

Tea is fairly good for you, and it provides you with that nice contemplative feeling of having a cup of something warm to drink while you work. And it has caffeine, but it's much harder to overdose on caffeine with tea than with coffee -- I hate that jittery feeling, and most people don't need much caffeine in order to get a productivity boost.

The problem most people have with tea is that they don't like it very much. Usually they find it too bitter. Occasionally they find it too boring. It takes too long to prepare / clean up. Fortunately, you're reading this, and I am about to tell you how to solve these problems. Get ready for a tea-filled future.

If you already know vaguely how to make tea and you just want to know how to make it delicious, there are only two important, non-obvious rules about tea:

  • Rule One: Don't burn the tea.

"Burning" the tea means putting it in water that's too hot. This doesn't apply to black tea, but it applies to oolong, green, and white teas. If you're pouring boiling water over any of these kinds of tea, you're going to burn it and it will come out bitter. The easy, cheap solution is to put a splash of cold water in the steeping vessel before adding the boiling water. I usually just estimate & pour 1 finger's width. The proper solution is to get an electric kettle with a thermometer, and set it to 180F/80C.

  • Rule Two: Don't oversteep.

Most teamaking instructions tell you to steep black tea for 4-5 minutes. This is far too long and your tea will come out bitter. 150 seconds (2.5 minutes) is all you want. For greener teas, 1.5 minutes is about right.

The rest of this guide will help you optimize your tea experience, but it's not nearly as important as the above rules.

  • Purchase top-of-the-line tea.

Sure, it's 5-10 times more expensive than the low-end stuff, but it's still extraordinarily cheap on an absolute scale. Do it once and feel like a king: sort the tea list from high price to low, and just buy the stuff at the top! I can only imagine owning the most expensive cars, or designer jeans, but I can actually drink some of the most expensive tea available. (You still have to avoid this at shitty retailers or you will get gypped.) Upton Tea Imports ( sells fantastic tea, and their expensive stuff is not a rip-off.

You'll note that Upton's good stuff is loose leaf. Yes, this means in order to drink good tea you'll have to

  • Get a loose-leaf tea brewing setup.

Believe it or not, the lack of a good way to brew loose-leaf tea stopped me from making good tea for a long time. I just couldn't stand having to find an infuser or teapot, clean the infuser, then decide whether to wash the leaves down the drain, and so on and so forth. Fortunately I've solved these problems for you:

Just get an IngenuiTEA / PerfecTea. These plastic teapots are cheap ($20 or so) and readily available on Amazon.

  • It's transparent so you can watch your tea as it brews. This is really fun to watch, and the color helps you determine when it's going to be tasty.
  • Lets your tea leaves unfold fully. Tea takes up a lot more space when it gets wet, and when you pack your tea into one of those tiny mesh balls, it won't infuse evenly. Mesh infusers that hang from the lid of a cup or teapot are a little better than the balls, but still suck.
  • Extremely easy to filter your tea into your cup (just place the teapot on top of the cup, gravity pulls the tea through the filter).
  • The filter never gets clogged.
  • It's only one piece with a wide mouth so it's super easy to clean. Once you've made all the tea you're going to make with those leaves, fill the teapot halfway with tap water, swish it around, and quickly dump it out into the compost, trash, or outside on the ground. If you pour it fast enough, the leaves will all fall out with the water. Then you can rinse the teapot out. Super easy!

Okay, now for some advanced techniques.

To make iced tea, use double the tea leaves you would normally use, and about half the water. Add the appropriate temperature water to the leaves, and steep for only 1.5 minutes for black tea (1.5 for green is still good). While it steeps, fill a large sturdy glass (like a pint glass) to the top with ice cubes. Then drain the teapot into the glass. The tea will melt most of the ice, and become cold and appropriately diluted. Steeping time is even more important than normal! Don't oversteep or your black tea will be incredibly bitter!

To make dessert tea, make black tea like normal, but steep it longer (maybe 3-4 minutes). The longer steeping time will make it more bitter, but you're about to fix that little problem with a generous amount of heavy cream. Don't be shy -- the more, the tastier. Stir in two heaping spoonfuls of sugar and a drop of vanilla extract. Let's not fool ourselves into thinking that this is good for us, which is why it's called dessert tea.

posted at: 23:43 | path: /cooking | permanent link to this entry

Wed, 16 Mar 2011

Learning to Cook for Newbies

1. Learn what you like.

Go to a lot of restaurants. Learn styles of food that you enjoy.

2. Use onions.

Add one sliced onion to pretty much every savory dish you cook, even if the recipe doesn't call for it. I'm serious about this. Eventually you will learn to discriminate, but for now, just go crazy with the onions. This will make an enormous difference in the deliciousness of everything you make.

You can do this with garlic too.

3. Learn a basic recipe by heart and adjust it.

Find something you can make easily and don't mind eating often, and play with it. Adjustments you could make include adding onions, garlic, oil, butter, cumin, thyme, or black pepper. See if you can distinguish the difference in flavor. Learn what you like.

4. Use lots of heat.

Heat causes two flavor reactions: the Maillard reaction and caramelization. Both are indicated by browning. You usually want lots of these to occur when cooking pretty much anything. You'll only get it with high temperatures or waiting a long time, and you're impatient, aren't you? :)

5. Cut meat small.

If you cut your meat into small pieces, you'll be sure it's done on the inside when it's brown on the outside. (See #4.) If your meat is in large chunks, the temperature control is much harder. If you want to cook large-chunk meat, try experimenting with sous vide.

6. Combine tomatoes and wine.

If you're cooking with tomatoes, add a little wine to the dish.

posted at: 01:15 | path: /cooking | permanent link to this entry

Wed, 06 Aug 2008


I've been reading The Bread Baker's Apprentice by Peter Reinhart. It's an excellent book, explaining both the chemistry and the art behind bread making, and it's taught me a lot. I've made several breads in the past few days and they've been really quite good.

The "standard" bread recipe is flour, water, salt and yeast. Mixed in the right proportions, and allowed to rise, it should produce good bread. Theoretically, but whenever I did it, something didn't come out quite right. Now that I'm reading this book I'm slowly fixing the things I do wrong and it's very satisfying.

First, the fermentation (rising) of the bread strongly controls the flavor. There are several reactions that go on -- yeast converts simple sugar into carbon dioxide and alcohol, enzymes convert starches into simple sugars, etc. The point is that if you let the dough to sit around for a while before you use it, you can improve the flavor of the bread. Depending on the ingredients and conditions in which you let it sit around, you can produce drastically different results.

For instance, if you use poolish, you mix flour, water, and yeast the day before, let it sit around for a few hours, then pop it in the fridge. The next day, you add it to the dough you make and the flavor is noticeably different (more mature, a stronger flavor). Similarly, if you use really cold water for a dough and knead it quickly by machine, then refrigerate it overnight, you get pain à l'ancienne, which has a distinctive rich flavor. I have been experimenting with both those recipes and they've turned out extremely well.

Other variables, I'm learning, have similarly powerful effects. Steam in the oven during the first two minutes of baking makes a big difference to the crust. A poorly heated baking stone can prevent the bottom from cooking, but a well-heated one (at least 40 minutes in the oven) can bring the crust from "lame" to "awesome". The temperature of the oven affects the quality of the interior and the crust. When scoring the dough, you can do it right before it goes in the oven if you've let it rise properly and not too long. But if you wait too long, it will have already risen its max and won't produce a nice bloom. If you cook the bread too early, it will be too dense and heavy.

I'm still experimenting, but so far it's been a really awesome few weeks learning about bread. I feel like I will soon produce something awesome. So far I've made some mistake each time (overcooking, undercooking, failure to rise) and if I fix all my mistakes, I think it will work out well.

posted at: 02:57 | path: /cooking | permanent link to this entry

Sat, 06 Jan 2007

Spicy foods

OK, it's been a while. Sorry, avid readers of my blog (as though you exist!) My urge to write English text was suppressed through that whole semester because I was actually taking a course in which I had to write frequently. (OK, "frequently" for me is nothing for a humanities major -- I wrote probably 20 pages the whole semester -- but it seems like a lot to me, and no humanities majors read my blog anyway.)

If you're a humanities major, let me know if you're reading this. :) In any case, that is one of my theories for why I didn't feel the urge to blog. Maybe a better one is that I just need to communicate about stuff I'm thinking about, and I recently (since October) have had a special person with whom I frequently have been able to communicate. She knows who she is. :)

Anyway, I've got a lot of new stuff that's been happening, but I figured I would focus on how rapidly I've gotten appreciative of Spicy Foods, and how much the Habanero Hamburger has actually affected me these past five months.

From as early as I can remember foods until about age 18 or so, I couldn't deal with anything remotely piquante. Capsaicin made me hurt, and this made food unpleasant. So I would refuse to eat it.

My first foray into actually LIKING something spicy was at Pho Pasteur in Harvard Square (Boston), where I ordered some tasty-looking "traditional Vietnamese cooking" recipe and they served me something spicy. Normally I would have refused and eaten somebody else's meal, but it was so tasty that I fought through the pain and came out the other side. After that day I (in a traditional Metroid fashion) acquired the Spicy Suit and thusly augmented my capacity to withstand spicy environments.

That was not, of course, the end of the story. For my spicy resistance was only partial. I still would refuse spicy chilies or Vindaloos. The ability to defeat such devious delicacies would come later. The story blossomed with the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand: the consumption of the venerable Habanero Hamburger. The Hamburger actually served two distinct roles in my spice maturation. The first was that it inspired in me the conviction that I could withstand any amount of spicy food given the right mindset, thereby evaporating my fear. The second was that it provided me a reference point from which to judge spiciness, and prevented me (through exploitation of my own ego) from calling anything "extremely spicy" unless it was at least half as spicy as the Habanero Hamburger. Nothing I've tasted since is even half that spicy, and so nothing is "extremely spicy" for me anymore. That makes it easy to get into the appropriate mindset.

But I must thank my fellow cooks in the Techhouse Coop for their role in forcing me to eat spicy foods. Now that I had the correct mindset and scale, I just needed experience in order to actually like them. And like them I did: the greatest curries and chilies were served to me, and lo! they were spicy (but not "extremely spicy"), and lo! did I pwn them.

A few weeks ago I tested my progress by ordering the same dish that once gave me the Spicy Suit: the Pho Pasteur traditional Vietnamese cooking. You know that feeling when you're playing an RPG and you go back to a lower level area and fight some mobs that used to give you trouble but now they're trivial? Exact same feeling. It was barely spicy by my new standards. But you know what they say about progress in RPGs? Leveling up builds character. :D I feel good about my progress.

Speaking of the Habanero Hamburger, I'm only just realizing how much of a mental advantage I actually had on the Burger. Many people who go eat a Burger think that they like extreme spice, so they consider the Burger just an extension of that -- and then they get devastated by its power. They totally blow up and break down because they're not mentally prepared. I had the right mindset from the outset -- I am not going to like this, better get it over with -- and it served me well, for I ate the Burger on turbo, blocked the pain from my mind, and it was a satisfactory experience.

posted at: 07:39 | path: /cooking | permanent link to this entry

Sat, 30 Sep 2006

Coop and Cooking

We at Techhouse have started a cooking coop this semester. It's a huge part of my life so you'll probably see a lot about it (when I update, which is not that often during school...)

Anyway, we have 8 people, we make meals 4 days a week, and each person cooks (with one other person) once a week. It works out very nicely -- I only have to make time once a week, and I really like cooking about that often, and then the other three days I can be busy and then show up and have a nice dinner with people. And it saves us massive amounts of money too! I'm sure if you scroll down you can find my anti-mealplan rants and calculations. Well, the coop costs me 20 or 25 dollars a week, and provides four dinners a week, plus a good amount of leftovers. So my money consumption rate is incredibly low. It rox.

What have I cooked? Well, I've helped Haynes with some Southern style dinners like fried catfish and hush puppies, as well as chicken bacon pizza (using a Boboli pizza crust 'cuz we were a little lazy that day, although today I think we would make our own crust). I've also been at the helm of an eggplant lasagna and a meatloaf, both of which were (in my opinion) pretty good.

That's an interesting thing I've noticed. I generally don't think too highly of my own works or creations, but when I'm cooking and I make something that I like, I don't act all modest. I don't know why I do it for cooking but not my other stuff.

Anyway, I'm sure you'll see more posts about cooking now that I'm actually doing it on a regular basis. I don't usually write down recipes. Maybe I will. Funky.

posted at: 22:03 | path: /cooking | permanent link to this entry