One of the best pieces of cooking advice anyone ever gave me was this: Never use water when you can use some other liquid. In other words, don’t just add liquid – add flavour, aroma, and character too.

Add flavour and character to your sauces and gravies with tea! (Photo source: article author)

Add flavour and character to your sauces and gravies with tea! (Photo source: article author)

Although I cook (and bake) with various liquids – broth, wine, beer, juices of all kinds, milks of all kinds – my preferred cooking and baking liquid is still tea.

And although I’ve amassed well over a hundred cookbooks, clipped countless recipes, and searched online for many more, there are still some basics that I prepare over and over again.

Amongst these is my go-to recipe for sauce and gravy. I start with béchamel sauce and alter it to complement – or complete – whatever dish I’m creating. Despite its fancy name, béchamel sauce is not difficult to fix. You start with a roux, a mixture of flour and oil or butter, and then add liquid and seasonings. The only real trick is to avoid lumps, which is much easier to do if you use a whisk.

Perhaps you’re already a whiz at whipping up béchamel sauce; if so, just substitute tea for the liquid in the recipe. The tea should be steeped at regular strength and hot when you add it to the roux. Choose a type that complements whatever you’re cooking up. I find that a rich dark Assam adds a flavourful touch to most savouries. Ceylons, an autumnal Darjeeling, or a roastier oolong works beautifully with lighter dishes.

For those of you who’ve never done a béchamel sauce, here’s the recipe I use. It’s very versatile: To use as a sauce, prepare with quantities as shown; for a gravy, add more tea – a quarter cup or more – until it reaches the desired consistency. If you want a creamier texture, replace about half the tea with milk (soy or dairy). Finish by adding herbs that complement your dish. As with all my recipes, a cup refers to an eight-ounce measuring cup.

I’d like to pass along another good piece of advice: Never use cheap wine for cooking. Similarly, never cook with cheap tea. Make sure you use fresh good quality tea in these recipes; it really does make a difference.

Voilà! And bon appe-tea-t!

Béchamel sauce
Yield: Two cups – about four servings

2½ Tablespoons light oil, margarine, or butter
2 Tablespoons unbleached flour
2 cups hot tea, steeped to regular strength
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
¼ teaspoon dried herbs, or ½ teaspoon fresh herbs, of your choice

Heat the oil (or melted butter) in a saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour until smooth. Continue whisking until the flour browns to a light sandy color.

Raise heat to medium-high. Slowly dribble in a quarter cup of tea, whisking constantly to keep mixture smooth. Repeat with another quarter cup of tea, then another. By this time the tea should be thickening without lumps and you should be able to stir the mixture with a wooden spoon.

Stir in the remainder of the tea and bring to a gentle simmer. Reduce the heat to medium-low and continue simmering until the flour has completely softened, about five to ten minutes. Season with salt and herbs of your choice.

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