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Tea’s Not Just for Drinking: 7 Genius Ways to Cook with It

If you're only drinking your tea, you're missing out on a world of delicious culinary opportunity, from risotto to soup to smoothies to ice cream toppings. A top American chef shows us how to get more love from the leaves.

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The tea movement

The tea movement is growing stronger every day, but you can do a whole lot more with it than just steep, drink, and repeat. Diane Henderiks, host of “Chef Inspired Healthy” at The Daily Meal, has worked the morning show circuit offering healthy alternatives to some of our favorite dishes. With her formal background as a registered dietitian, she’s applied her creative, healthy approach to cooking to ways we can use this zero-calorie and highly flavorful ingredient in powder, bag, and leaf form.

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Swap water for brewed tea

When making pasta, rice, risotto, oatmeal, quinoa or any grain or legume that is traditionally cooked in water, choose a tea with a flavor profile that matches the dish; brew it, and replace the water with it. Cranberry, peach, chai, mint, and lemon all add a dimension of flavor that water could never bring, and it’s a great alternative to adding sugar, honey, or other calorie-infused sweeteners. Try cooking rice in lemon tea to go with a Turkish tagine dish; cook oatmeal with peach tea for a fruity start to your day.

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Ways-You're-Not-Cooking-with-Tea—But-Should-BeAnna Shepulova/shutterstock

Step up your smoothie

Brew your favorite flavored tea, let it cool, freeze it in ice cube trays; then place them in freezer-safe bags. The next time you make a smoothie, use the flavored tea ice cubes instead of water to add another element of flavor in place of water. Use one cup of tea for every three cups of fruit. Try strawberry, raspberry, lavender, mint, and green tea.

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Pack a punch with a sprinkle of matcha powder

Matcha is a powdered green tea with a variety of health benefits, such as cancer-fighting and immune-boosting properties. It is an acquired taste, but give it a shot: Matcha is loaded with antioxidants that may aid in brain, heart, skin, and other health benefits. Sprinkle matcha powder over ice cream, salad dressing, or into marinade and smoothie recipes. You can also use it in bread by adding two teaspoons for every cup of flour.

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Simmer tea leaves in your soup

Add a hefty pinch of tea leaves, along with all of your other ingredients, to your soup stock. Simmer until done, then strain. “I particularly like black and green tea for this,” Henderiks says.

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Ways-You're-Not-Cooking-with-Tea—But-Should-BeGita Kulinitch Studio/shutterstock

Smoke your foods and meats

Burning tea leaves to smoke foods such as meats, poultry, fish, and veggies is a classic Chinese technique that adds great smoky flavor. You can use any tea leaves for this, though chai, jasmine, and green tea are always great options. The process is simple: Line a wok or deep pan with a few long layers of foil, as you will need the extra to cover the food and seal in the smoke. Combine equal parts tea leaves and uncooked rice (try jasmine rice) and make a pile in the base of the wok. Drizzle a little water over the mixture because you want it to smoke, not burn. You can throw in citrus rinds, cinnamon sticks, star anise, nutmeg, or any whole spice for added flavor. Keep it going over medium heat for about five minutes or until it just starts to smoke; then place a wire rack in the pan on top of the tea mixture. Be sure it is about one-and-a-half inches above the tea so the smoke can circulate, cover with excess foil or a lid, and cook about 10 minutes for poultry and about 5 minutes for meat, fish, and veggies. Remove it from the heat and let it continue to cook until done.

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Mix up your marinades

Brew up your favorite flavor of tea and use as the liquid for a marinade, like black cherry berry, cinnamon and cardamom, or ginger; then add some oil and your favorite spices, herbs and flavoring, and you have yourself a delicious marinade. “Make two times as much marinade as you need using one part tea, one part good quality oil, and some aromatics like herbs, spices, garlic, ginger, chilies and onion, a pinch of salt and any other flavor-boosting ingredients you like,” says Henderiks. “Don’t get hung up on measurements of the additions. Use what you love and however much you like. Reserve half to marinate meat, poultry, pork, veggies, tofu, fish, whatever—and use the other half for dressing after it’s cooked.” To use in a dressing, take the reserved marinade and add a delicious, natural thickener like avocado, yogurt, pureed fruit, mustard, nuts or tofu, and throw it all in a blender. Place in an airtight container and keep it in the fridge up to a week.

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Amp up your casseroles

Grab a freezer-safe small container, label with “brewed tea” and get it started with your first batch of used tea leaves. When the container is full, defrost, do a quick chop-chop and add about a tablespoon to casseroles, soups, and stews and such for a boost of delicious nutrition. The leaves have a strong but delicious flavor, so use a small amount at first and build as needed.

Helaina Hovitz is an editor, journalist, and author of After 9/11.

Helaina Hovitz
Helaina Hovitz is a native New Yorker, editor, journalist, and author of the memoir "After 9/11." Helaina has written for The New York Times, Forbes, Teen Vogue, Glamour, Huffington Post, Women's Health, Bustle, Prevention, Thrillist, VICE, HEALTH, Salon, SELF, the Daily Meal, and many others. Follow her on Twitter @HelainaHovitz and Facebook/HelainaNHovitz.