The Mettle of the Kettle

Question: What’s one of the most basic and oldest items in the arsenal of someone living the tea life – whether you’re just starting out, are a tea aficionado, or are a real tea gourmet?

Answer: The tea kettle.

As Alton Brown would say on his show “Good Eats,” the tea kettle is a “uni-tasker.” It does one thing and does it well: boil water. Of course, this is why the kettle is so essential to making tea, and why you need to know the mettle of your kettle.

Take a trip to the local kitchen utensil store or do an online search for “tea kettles” and you’ll see tons of choices from a variety of makers, including Oko, Krups, and Revere. They come in two basic categories: stovetop and electric. The electric ones are both wired and wireless (the kettle sits on a base that is plugged in). The stovetop kind range from strictly utilitarian to mostly decorative.

Tea_Blog_Mettle-Kettle_013So, which one – or two or three – do you get? Your choice. I gravitate toward the stovetop kind which have a real tradition behind them, dating to the discovery of tea.

The legend of tea discovery goes back over two-and-a-half millennia to China. The “Divine Farmer” Shen Nong, what we would call a botanist, was classifying plants. He became thirsty and set up his open pot to boil some water. A few leaves from the bush (camellia sinensis) he was studying fell into the pot and were boiled with the water. He tried some and found it tasteful and beneficial. Soon, tea drinking was well-established as a daily necessity for good health, especially since the diet at that time of most Chinese didn’t include a lot of vegetables.

This open pot was suitable for boiling water and adding in tea cakes for steeping. Over the centuries, a more enclosed pot with a spout, precursor to today’s kettle, was developed. This made it harder to add in tea cakes, so a separate steeping pot made of ceramic came into usage. As tea drinking spread to Europe and beyond, further refinements were made to the whole process, including larger kettles and ceramic steeping pots.

Kettles made of brass were mentioned in an eleventh century poem by Lo Tai Ching. Cast iron kettles were common in Japan as part of their tea ceremony. Today, kettles are made of stainless steel and/or copper. Some have a “whistle” on the spout that sounds when steam is pushed through it. Great if you’re making tea that needs water brought to a full boil. However, different teas require different heat: 205-212˚ F for black, 165-185˚ F for green, 160-175˚ F for white, etc.

With the advent of electricity, the electric tea kettle was born. One of the greatest advantages is its ability to heat water to specific temperatures, assuring a correct brew. Also, electric kettles are said to heat water faster.

Being traditionally minded, I stick with my stovetop Asta kettle from Germany. The enamel finish makes it attractive, and it has stood up to a couple of dry boils, where I turned on the burner under the empty kettle. There’s no whistle or cap on the spout, so I have to listen to the kettle and, when the lid starts to do its little dance, I know the water has reached a boil. Not exactly rocket science – more a matter of having an “ear” for the boil.

Whether you choose electric or stovetop, decorative or utilitarian, your kettle will be the most fundamental part of your tea “equipage.” So, go on and flex your mettle for the kettle!

© 2009-2016 A.C. Cargill photos and text

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