Despite its apparent simplicity, getting chai right requires a methodical devotion to the details. Back when I was in graduate school, my roommate, Rashmi, made the most delicious chai. Her chai took time; she steadfastly followed a series of practiced steps, never deviating from her technique. My roommates and I quietly waited as she assessed the chai’s color, aroma, and taste, before she finally gave her approval and confidently declared, “It is ready.” We’d immediately grab our cups so we could devour the freshly brewed beverage.
I no longer live with Rashmi, but I’ve since learned how to make my own exemplary chai—and it turns out there’s a fair bit of science that goes into a proper cup. You need to purchase the right kind of tea leaves, boil the tea with water and then milk to extract and develop its complex flavors, and, finally, rest the tea before serving to allow the flavors to meld. Here's how and why.
What is Chai?
Chai, in its most literal sense, just means "tea" in Hindi. In recent times, there has been a running joke that "chai tea" is redundant because it means tea tea. But that's not quite right! Chai, in the context of Indian cuisine, refers quite specifically to black tea made by boiling the tea and spices and boiling and aerating the milk. One doesn't grow chai at a "chai estate" in India, we call those "tea estates," and we don't go around asking for "green chai" if Japanese green tea is the drink that's desired.
So while it might be true that the term "chai tea" is unnecessarily repetitive, it would be incorrect to conclude that "chai" merely means tea in daily conversation. It means this specific way of preparing tea.
Select Brew: How to Choose The Best Type of Tea for Chai
There are two ways to process black tea: the "orthodox" method, which produces more delicate black teas, and the "crush-tear-curl (CTC)" method, which produces more assertive ones. Traditional chai is typically made with spherical tea granules manufactured using the CTC method.
In the orthodox method, tea leaves are first partially dried, and then passed through mechanical rollers that press and turn the leaves, crushing and twisting them in the process. This twisting and crushing damages the cells in the leaves, which encourages more vigorous oxidation of natural polyphenols in the tea leaves called flavonoids (these are some of the tannins that give tea its tongue-drying astringency).
When tea leaves are oxidized to make black tea, new molecules are produced, including theaflavins and thearubigins, which are largely responsible for the unique flavor we associate with black tea; they are also responsible for changing the color of the tea leaves. “In general,” The Story of Tea authors Mary Lou Heiss and Robert J. Heiss write, “theaflavins contribute to the brisk and bright taste of black tea, while the thearubigins are what provide strength (depth or body) and color.”
The CTC method is a technique developed by Sir William McKercher in 1930 as a more efficient way to process larger, more bitter leaves into smaller pieces for filling tea bags with greater efficiency. Unlike the orthodox method, the CTC method starts by sifting and shredding the leaves (what’s called preconditioning), after which they're sent through stainless steel rollers equipped with sharp teeth to cut them up even more finely. Just as with the orthodox method, the CTC process calls for oxidizing the leaves after rolling and cutting. But, according to Heisses, the CTC method's aggressive crushing and mincing of tea leaves allows for a more vigorous oxidation, producing even higher concentrations of theaflavins and thearubigins.
This is why orthodox teas tend to be more delicate and are generally steeped—not boiled—to extract their flavors. The CTC method, on the other hand, produces a robust, malty tea that is higher in heat-stable tannins. In practice, what this means is CTC teas can take quite a bit of thermal abuse, allowing you to actively boil them without the quality of tea degrading. As it turns out, this is very important for making chai, which requires boiling the tea to fully extract its flavor so that it doesn't become overly dilute later with the addition of milk.
I recommend looking for the words “orange pekoe'' when purchasing CTC teas; this indicates that the leaves are of the highest quality, are larger in size, and come from the top of the plant. The leaves on the top are tender, while those on the bottom tend to be more bitter.
CTC teas are graded into the categories "broken leaf" and "fannings and dust," with the latter being remnant powdery bits from processing. The fine texture of fannings and dust teas means they produce a stronger tea much more quickly when brewed, but will become bitter when boiled too long. Because of this, I prefer to use the larger broken leaf granules, which result in a more balanced and aromatic cup of tea. (That said, I should note that according to an interview I conducted with Ajit Bhaskar, senior process manager of Lipton Teas & Infusions, fannings and dust are not inherently inferior to broken leaf; what determines quality is a more complex consideration of many factors.)
The best way to avoid fannings and dust for chai is to not buy tea bags, which are often filled with those finer particles. Though some people may use tea bags to make chai, this isn’t an ideal method given the risk of producing an overly bitter cup. Tea bags also provide less room for the tea to unfurl and release their aromas and flavors.
Rolling in the Steep: The Case for Boiling the Spices, Tea, and Milk
Adding spices to the brew is an essential part of chai, helping to build layers of flavor, and rounding out each cup. Cardamom, for example, highlights the tea’s sweet, floral notes, while ginger, cinnamon, and cloves lend a subtle warmth.
Just as I don't recommend using tea bags, I also wouldn't recommend using pre-ground spices. As former Serious Eats editor Sho Spaeth has written, whole spices tend to stay fresher much longer than pre-ground, with ground spaces losing some of their most compelling aromatics rapidly. Using whole spices is a better guarantee for a more pronounced and complex flavor in chai, one that you're less likely to get from their powdered counterparts.
I always start my chai by boiling the spices with the tea and water, which helps to fully extract their flavors. Adding milk at this stage would interfere with the ability of the tea and spices to infuse thoroughly into the water—pulling the flavor from the thick, woody structure of whole spices takes time, and the fat globules in milk act to further slow the process down (plus, boiling with milk at this stage requires more babysitting of the pot, since milk is more prone to boil-over). Once the whole spices and tea release their flavors, then you can add the milk.
Boiling the tea for at least a few minutes is also a critical part of the technique. When tea leaves are added to boiling water, they release the water-soluble theaflavins and thearubigins. The Heisses describe these tannins as “antioxidant substances that contribute to the characteristic orange or red color, brightness, briskness, and flavor of black tea.” Boiling the tea helps to unlock these complex flavors and aromas, and usually takes two to five minutes. Thearubigins constitute 10–20 % of the dry weight of solids in black tea, whereas theaflavins comprise 2–6%. However, because of their highly soluble nature, the thearubigins can contribute up to 60% of the solids in a black tea infusion. In a 2018 study by Cleverdon et al, they found that 5 minutes of steeping was necessary for releasing the most polyphenol content in black tea.
People often see a noticeable color change within 30 seconds of simmering and make the mistake of thinking that it is time to add the milk, but please resist the urge—the color may have changed but the flavor is not yet fully developed. There are nearly 600 aroma compounds in black tea, many that are sweet and floral, and they require more than half a minute to infuse into the water.
Some people try to shortcut the simmering time simply by brewing an excessive amount of tea relative to the amount of water. That may make a strong cup of tea, but it won't make a good one: The result is an unpleasantly acrid cup. It is better to be conservative with the amount of tea used and to boil for a longer period of time than to use too much tea. If you’re using a reasonable amount—and the right kind—of tea, don’t worry about over-steeping, because chai has a secret weapon for countering any resulting bitterness from a too-long infusion: milk.
Once the polyphenols and flavors have had time to bloom, it’s time to add the milk and transform what looks and tastes like a bitter extract into a complex, delicious beverage. I usually aim for a ratio of 1 part milk to 1 1/4 parts water (the extra 1/4 cup of water is there to account for evaporation during the initial boil, so the resulting ratio of milk to water really ends up closer to 1:1).
To tame the bitterness of the tannins and bring out the natural sweetness of the dairy, it’s essential to boil the milk with the chai for several minutes, and not merely add it just before serving. As Harold McGee wrote in On Food and Cooking, milk can reduce astringency “by inducing the tannins to bind to food proteins before they can affect salivary proteins,” giving a dish—or, in this case, a cup of chai—a smoother mouthfeel. This process happens more readily as the milk is cooked and its whey proteins unravel, making boiling an important step.
On top of this, milk becomes sweeter as it cooks. This is partly because we perceive sweetness better when foods are hotter (think of how much sweeter ice cream tastes once melted), but also because lactose breaks down into more simple sugar molecules as it's exposed to heat over time; this is why steamed milk in a cappuccino, or a mug of warm milk before bed, is distinctly sweeter than milk that hasn't been scalded first.
Once you’ve added the milk to the chai mixture, it’s crucial to keep it at a frothy, rolling boil for five minutes, which is essential to properly aerate the chai. Although I should be more specific: It's not a continuous rolling boil that will happen. Because milk has a tendency to boil-over, and because you need an aggressive boil to properly aerate the chai, what you will really do is a sequence of near boil-overs in which you will bring the chai to a rolling boil, allow it to almost make a total mess of your stove, but lower the heat just in time to prevent that. As soon as the bubbling subsides, you will crank the heat again to repeat the process and introduce even more air. (Some chai vendors will ladle the chai down onto itself from very high to further aerate the drink, though this risks spills and burns in your kitchen, so take cake.)
When done well, you will be able to see the subtle bubbly foam that forms on top of boiled milk. This produces both a textural change in the chai as well as yet another flavor change: Just as you’d decant red wine (or “let it breathe”) to soften its tannins, introducing oxygen to the chai helps to reduce the sharpness of the tea’s tannins.
Rest Tea-sy: The Important of Postponing the First Sip
Once the chai has boiled and the spices have steeped, I cover the saucepan with a lid and allow the mixture to sit for five more minutes. Covering the chai helps traps volatile aroma molecules in the pot and allows them to infuse back into the milk instead of just allowing them to waft off into the air. Plus, letting the chai sit for a few minutes helps bring it down to a more enjoyable serving temperature.
The result is a perfect cup of chai, one my family and friends now wait expectantly for me to make, the way I once did for Rashmi’s chai.
The Spice is Right: How to Choose Spices for Chai
Order "chai" in the United States and you're likely to be served a cup of tea that is seasoned with a blend of warm spices and aromatics like ginger. But this clumping of flavors is an Americanized version, and not something you would typically see in India. Indian chai instead comes in a number of different flavors, each with a more pared-down presence of just one or two main spices.
For example, if you go to any chai vendor in India, whether it be a small roadside stall or a Starbucks-like chain, you will see flavor options on the menu like ginger (adrak) chai, cardamom (elaichi) chai, or saffron chai. The same is true in Indian homes. If you visit mine, I will ask you if you prefer ginger or cardamom or any other flavor in your chai, and prepare whichever you ask for. Even the so-called "masala chai," which describes a type of chai that features a mix of spices heavy on cinnamon and clove, usually has little else.
My recipe below follows the Indian tradition of a more reserved approach with the spices: choose one or two from the suggested list below instead of tossing them all into the pot. I suspect many will come to appreciate this more focused, less heavy-handed flavoring approach.
In a 2-quart saucepan, bring the 1 1/4 cups water to a simmer over medium-high heat. Add tea, sugar, and the spices/flavorings you have selected from the list. For a light chai, allow the mix to boil until the extract is reddish brown and lightly aromatic, about 2 minutes. For a stronger chai, allow the mixture to boil until the extract is darker, thicker, and more aromatic, about 5 minutes.
Add milk to chai mixture, return to a boil, then set a timer for 5 minutes. While the timer is counting down, allow the chai to rise up in the saucepan until it almost boils over, then reduce heat and allow it to fall back down into the pot. Increase the heat and repeat this process of almost boiling over 3 more times. Finally, reduce heat to a gentle simmer for the remainder of the 5-minute timer.
Remove chai from heat, cover with a lid, and allow it to stand for 5 minutes. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer and serve immediately.
2-quart saucepan, fine-mesh strainer
Do not add too many spices all at once. They will overpower the chai. It is more enjoyable to add just 1 or 2 spices to round out the chai flavor. I recommend starting with cardamom, if you like this spice. If you want to add saffron, the method is slightly different: A pinch of saffron should be added after the boil during the resting step.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Chai reheats very well the next day. You can make a double batch, strain it, and refrigerate it without any problem.