Kitchen Lab: Thick as London Fog

I am not a tea person. I am, however, intrigued by how so many people can be so very, very fascinated by/addicted to it. What is it about tea, exactly? The flavor, the aroma, the slow, deliberate process, the warm cup in your hand? How is it such an entrenched part of culture that Arthur Dent’s endless quest for a decent cuppa was so universally accepted as just making sense?

A recently-shared post about a tea drink called a London Fog was so rapturously swooned over that I decided to see what the fuss was about. It’s also been appropriately grey, rainy and gloomy around here lately, so a toasty-warm beverage with a “resemblance to sipping a marshmallow” seemed in order.

There’s only three ingredients: tea, milk, and vanilla, which seemed easy enough. The recipe recommended either almond or coconut milk, which I pretty much never have, and I had no Earl Grey tea, so I went to the store.

Well, then.

Even just going to a plain ol’ grocery store, and even knowing the specific kind of tea I was looking for (Earl Grey) presented a plethora of options. How to choose? Which is the “good” kind? Also, what if I decided I hated it? Would I be adding yet another box to my small collection of tried-it-once teas? Is there a class I can take, a reference sheet to download, a Buzzfeed list of Top Teas for Picard-Loving Trekkies?

I wound up with a Twinings black tea variety pack, discovering that yes, there IS a LADY Earl Grey. Wouldn’t want the good Earl to be lonely among all those herbals and chais.

Then to get the milk-stuff. Having no idea where to find not-dairy milk other than the fact that I think it’s in not-refrigerated boxes, I looked down the aisle where they keep all the organic stuff. A full shelf section, top to bottom, was dedicated to the various squeezings of items I’d previously considered at least somewhat un-squeezable. My entire line of sight was nearly full of not-milk choices.

Trying to stay focused, I looked only at the almond and coconut milks, a still-vast selection. Since the coconut stuff was labeled “drink” and not “milk,” I went with almond. Plain, because I had no idea how a London Fog is supposed to taste, the recipe did not specify, and it further narrowed my options if I simply dismissed the flavored kinds.

This was already inducing decision-fatigue for something that’s supposed to be soothing. But let’s continue… I checked out and went home.

Water in the kettle. The instructions say to steep the tea in 1/2 cup of water… did I need to boil more than 1/2 cup to account for steam? (No.) Would it make that much of a difference? (Nah.) Was I likely to forget it in the kitchen and have half of it boil off? (Possibly.) Would measuring boiling water in my plastic measuring cup destroy the poor thing? What the heck, 1/2 cup of water goes into the kettle. I think. Mostly. Maybe I need a funnel.

Now, water’s boiled, the tea’s in the water, steeping for 5 minutes, let’s heat the milk. Instructions are to whisk 1/2 cup of almond or coconut milk over medium heat while the tea steeps. Does this mean I need to whisk for the entire 5 minutes? Why isn’t this getting foamy? My wrist hurts. What am I doing wrong? Should I just go find a tea shop with real equipment and be done with it?

This did not work as well as I'd planned.
This did not work as well as I’d planned.
Vanilla beans soaked in bourbon. The best way to cook.
Vanilla beans soaked in bourbon. The best way to cook.

Okay, fine, five minutes are up, here we go. Milk into the tea… wait, do I need to squeeze the tea bag? Is that a thing people do? Was I supposed to swirl things around while it was steeping or anything? Is the tea strong enough? Welp, this is what I’ve got. In it goes.

Add 1/2 tsp of vanilla… yes! I have vanilla! I have some fancy bourbon-illa made from soaking some vanilla beans in bourbon for a while. This will be good.

Except the bottle kinda sucks for pouring small amounts. Oops. I do love vanilla, though.

Huzzah! A little stir and I have a fancy tea drink! It smells DELIGHTFUL, this could really be worth it. There isn’t much, but it’s pretty good. I’ve somehow managed to mess up a good portion of my kitchen to make tea, but let’s just take it out to sit on the couch, shall we? Yes. Ignore the mess in the kitchen, this is Soothing Tea-Drinking Time.

Check out my awesome Illinois Science Council mug, which I won at trivia night!
Check out my awesome Illinois Science Council mug, which I won at trivia night! It has mL measurements on the other side, v. handy.

In a later experiment, I tried making this with regular dairy milk. I think I liked the almond milk better, but YMMV. A friend tried it with coconut milk and said the coconut almost overwhelmed the tea, but I’d still be curious to try that as well.

HOWEVER, after two attempts at making my own London Fog, I have discovered that I’ve been Doin’ It Rong™.

You don’t want to use a regular whisk to try to foam up milk, it can’t get to the bottom and edges of the pan to make good froth. At first, I was told you need to use a little battery-operated doohickey with a fancy end.

Photo: Andrew Fogg on Flickr
Photo: Andrew Fogg on Flickr

I’m not a huge fan of single-purpose kitchen implements, but I suppose milk-froth DOES kinda fall into an exceptional category. So I went looking for alternatives, and found many! You can use your French Press (the “press” part looks like the frother above), swish around a mesh tea ball, shake it up with one of those protein-shakers with the shaker-ball inside, and even froth it up in your microwave.

It was the microwave method that I found the most interesting…and I also have the equipment for it. (if you can call a jar and a microwave ‘equipment’.) I shared the link with my friend flurgh (who I have now deputized as my Mad Art Lab Assistant), and before I could even finish writing this post she had already tried it out. It works!

An excellent result!
An excellent result! Photo: flurgh

She warns that the milk froths up a LOT, so even just a 1/2 cup in a 12 oz. Mason jar went poof really fast. Though the recipe above calls for almond or coconut milk, she tried the microwave-froth method with 2% dairy milk.

Full-fat milks don’t always froth as well, since they don’t have the added proteins that help stabilize the bubbles and they do have more of the milk fats that destabilize bubbles. (To learn how that all works, you can read a super-sciency explanation here, or a more casual explanation here.) I can personally vouch for this fact to be true, as a former barista challenged by requests for cappuccinos made with whipping cream, of all things.

If you’re interested in a comparison of how different kinds of almond milk froth up, check out this post from Frog Is Wrong. Whole Latte Love compared the froth-ability of rice, soy, and coconut milk in this video, albeit with an espresso machine frother.

I was not expecting a three-ingredient tea drink to be this… complicated! But it’s really not, I’m just very susceptible to falling down rabbit holes to find out WHY things work. And now I just need to try all these other methods, and different combinations of the various kinds of milk and tea. For SCIENCE!

But that is for another day.

Today, I’ll just look out at the rain with my London Fog.

Beth Voigt

Beth is a graphic designer in Chicago, a superhero in her own mind, and absolutely nothing on TV. She wrangles fonts professionally, pummels code amateurishly, and has been known to shove fire in her face for fun. Fond of volunteering, late-night bursts of productivity, and making snacks, she dislikes grocery shopping and sticky public transit and is only on her second smartphone. Her opinion is that you should try everything twice; if you don't like it, you were probably doing it wrong the first time around. If external links are your thing, here are links to Twitter and Instagram, and you can support her ongoing weirdness by buying her a coffee or six.

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