What Is White Tea?

Don't overlook this delicate tea when you choose your next cup.

December 16, 2019
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A hot cup of silver needle white tea scented with jasmine blossoms with those precious unbrewed tea leaves on the side.

Photo by: Margarita Komine

Margarita Komine

There's Earl Grey, English Breakfast, green, oolong, and the list goes on — there are so many different varieties of tea to enjoy. One tea that is often overlooked is white tea. It is perhaps the most delicate of the teas available, because it's the least processed. White tea is made from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis bush, which are harvested before they fully open. The buds have little white downy hairs (think peach fuzz) before they fully open up, and that's how white tea got its name. It's harvested each spring — from around mid-March to early April — in cool, dry weather, so the harvest window is often very small. It can be found most commonly in China's Fujian province, where it originated, but in the past decade it has begun to appear in neighboring provinces as well as in parts of Southeast Asia and South Asia.

Something else that makes white tea special? It goes through the least amount of oxidation of any tea, which means as "close to nature as a tea leaf can be," says tea consultant Alexis Siemons, who writes about tea on her blog Teaspoons and Petals. Oxidation is the process of exposure to oxygen after harvest. Although white tea undergoes some natural oxidation, it really remains pretty untouched. Because of this, white tea has the highest levels of the natural antioxidants known as polyphenols of all of the teas available. White teas are generally very low in caffeine as well, making them a nice choice to sip morning, noon or night.

Preparation tips

Siemons suggests having your water at a temperature of around 180 degrees F, well below boiling. "It's the difference between toasting something and burning it," she says. "You want the water to be less hot to extract the flavor." You can use 180 as a launching point, moving up a few degrees. Some tea brands are suggesting closer to 185 to 190, so you can play around. You'll want to steep for around 3 to 5 minutes, again depending on the tea.

If you want more flavor, use more tea, rather than letting it steep longer, which can bring out bitter notes. Reem Rahim, co-founder of Numi Organic Tea, says, "The bitter taste comes from releasing the tannins, which we don't want to do with this tea."

You'll also want to pay attention to the water you are using with this tea. "Pure water really matters with white tea," says Siemons. "You want to think of it as a blank canvas, versus a water source that may be adulterated by other minerals and flavors."

Flavor profiles

Pure white tea has a very delicate flavor, sometimes with notes of apricot, and has a buttery mouthfeel. It is often seen in blends with fruits like peaches or flowers like roses or orange blossoms. Think of white tea as you would a delicate white fish — its taste easily melds with whatever flavors it's paired with. If you are looking for the purest of white teas, look for Silver Needle, which is usually the first spring harvest of white tea and often very prized.

Cooking with white tea

Although its flavor is very delicate, white tea can add a little extra dimension when used in cooking. Rahim likes to use white tea to steam fish (subbing in tea for water) or instead of water when cooking rice or other grains, as it lends a slightly sweet, vegetal flavor.

Food pairings

Both Rahim and Siemons suggest pairing white tea with lighter, delicate items. Siemons often enjoys hers alone in the morning before food, almost like a palate cleanser. Or she'll have it with an afternoon snack of almonds or mild cheeses. Rahim likes to pair white tea with desserts like a creme brulee, cheesecake or fruit tart — or, on the more savory side, a delicate white fish or a nice spring salad.

To get more flavor out of the tea and help it stand up to something with a little more flavor, Siemons often cold-brews her tea to bring out its mild sweetness. She'll even sometimes add fresh fruit like peaches or apricots to her cold brew on a hot summer day.

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