Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez
Have you heard? The British are coming…for this Bryn Mawr professor. Michelle Francl, who is also a chemist, has always loved tea, prompting her to write a book about the science behind it. Steeped: The Chemistry of Tea, dropped this Wednesday and it gives readers some unusual advice for making their tea: just add…salt. The advice, however, has our comrades across the pond up in arms, so much so that even the U.S. Embassy of London and the British government had to weigh in with their own commentary (it’s so cute when diplomats get playful!).
In the book, Francl explains that incorporating a pinch of salt into your tea can help block the receptors that make tea, specifically black tea, bitter.
This makes sense! “Most [black] tea isn’t very good,” Max Falkowitz wrote on this very site back in 2018, “overly bitter and tannic yet curiously bland.” (And yet we’re all out here taking subpar, wince-worthy mugs to the face, assuring ourselves we’re doing something better for our bodies than chugging even more coffee.) None of this is shocking to this crew of over-caffeinated food geeks: People have been adding salt to coffee for ages for the same reason (not to mention the long history of salted teas like butter tea in Nepal and Tibet). Plus, salt, a famous flavor potentiator, has built-in powers to ameliorate said bitterness. Why wouldn’t we put this magical, ubiquitous bitter-mitigating compound into our icky cups of tea?
The key, Francl notes, is adding no more than a pinch in order for the sodium to go unnoticed when drinking. The nerds in us were naturally intrigued by the science of Francl’s tip, so naturally, we decided to put this viral outrage to the test. Several members of the team made steaming salty cups o’ tea following Francl’s advice. We also made a control cup to compare, brewing the tea in the exact same way, but omitting the pinch of salt.
Daniel’s two cups of tea testing salt’s impact on tea’s flavorSerious Eats / Daniel Gritzer
The best advice we can give after trying this ourselves is to emphasize that Francl is really calling for a pinch of salt. Our very own Tess Koman may have been a bit too liberal with it. “I found the salt completely mitigated any bitterness I’ve come to expect with black teas,” she said. “I went heavy with my pinch and still my cup was delicious, like drinking the sweetest, mildest version of salted licorice (this is a good thing and I will not hear otherwise).” Daniel Gritzer went easier on the salting, noting “the salted tea, to me, did not taste even remotely salty, but its flavors were more well-rounded, whereas the salted tea had more of a tannic edge. I preferred the salted tea.” He asked his wife Kate to blind-taste each cup and she, too, preferred the salted version. He went on to add: “This little diplomatic media-relations exercise has been cute, but we’re not gonna be impressed until the Brits send some frigates this way for a real battle—we’re overdue,” so now it’s A Whole Thing in Slack.
As for me, I’m not the biggest tea drinker, but I was compelled (read: “strongly encouraged” by my editor) to try this out myself (“Who knows, maybe salted tea literally converts you to liking it?”). To my surprise, tasting both cups of tea side by side, the cup of salted tea was noticeably less bitter…and, dare I say, more delicious? It definitely still needed some sugar, which I added with gusto once I completed our lil experiment. Anyway, I owe many thanks to Ms. Francl for giving me a solution to my tea-hating problem!
Regardless of the consensus here, I think we can all agree the King’s subjects need to chill. Not every conversation about tea needs to involve them! (After all, when was the last time anyone asked the Italians how best to pull a shot of espresso?) Let this be a reminder that there are plenty of other countries that drink the beverage religiously. And with that, I bid you a hearty ta-ta and cheerio, as the British may very well be readying to come for us now.