Almost Instant Chai

October 15, 2013

It's always more fun to DIY. Every week, we'll spare you a trip to the grocery store and show you how to make small batches of great foods at home.

Today: Megan Scott of The Joy Kitchen shares the key to a perfect cup of chai.

Almost Instant Chai 

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We probably have coffee shops to thank for the widespread consumption of chai. You can get it at almost any café from Birmingham to Boston, but the vast majority of chai is completely forgettable and tongue-shrivelingly saccharine. 

It's a shame that chai has been relegated to the "coffee alternative" category, when really, it is a completely delicious drink in its own right. At its best, it is spicy and lightly sweet, the perfect blend of warming spices that can clear your head on a foggy, cool morning.

As with so many things, the secret to the best chai is to make it at home. Of course, the obvious reason for this is to know exactly what went into your steaming cup of tea. But beyond the question of ingredients is the affordability and ease of walking into your own kitchen and brewing up a cup of some of the best chai you can get anywhere. After several trials using different spice blends, I came up with results far better than any coffee shop chai I'd ever had. 

Almost Instant Chai on Food52

The Spices
Once ground, a spice's nuances begin to dwindle, so we prefer to grind our own. Whole spices can also be a great deal cheaper than ground spices, especially if you shop at ethnic food stores. 

Most spices can simply be ground as they are. For cinnamon sticks, however, wrap them in a kitchen towel and splinter them with the blunt side of a heavy kitchen knife. This will make them a lot easier to grind. For nutmeg, use a rasp or nutmeg grater.

All you need to turn whole spices into a powder is a good spice or coffee grinder. It's a small initial investment (if you don't have one knocking around in your cabinets already), but it will give you the ability to grind spices as needed, which will in turn make all your cooking more flavorful.

Almost Instant Chai on Food52

The Tea
Choose a strong, simple black tea -- preferably Assam or Ceylon -- without added flavorings. For those interested in a no-fuss brew, any cheap, black tea (loose leaf or in bags) will do. For the tea aficionados among you, feel free to use your favorite black tea. Just remember that you want something with enough flavor to stand up to all those spices. The two-year-old bags of Luzianne in the back of your pantry aren't going to cut it this time.

More: From cups to pots to leaves, we've got an entire collection of goods for tea time.

Other Uses For Chai Masala
Don't limit your homemade chai masala to tea. Combine it with sugar and roll snickerdoodle dough in it for a spicier version of the classic cookie. Use it to flavor quickbreads, scones, and other baked goods. Add it to an ice cream base. You can even rub it, with salt, on chicken or ribs before roasting. 

Almost Instant Chai 

Makes about 3/4 cup

For the Chai Masala

1/4 cup ground black pepper (about 1/3 cup peppercorns)
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons ground ginger
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon (about four 5-inch cinnamon sticks)
2 tablespoons ground cardamom (about 1/4 cup whole green cardamom pods)
1 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves (about 18 cloves)
1 1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg (about 1 whole nutmeg)
1/2 teaspoon ground dried orange peel, optional

Almost Instant Chai on Food52

Grind each spice individually in a spice or coffee grinder. Be sure to grind them as finely as possible to avoid chunks of whole spices in your tea. Sift each spice with a fine-mesh sifter and return any large pieces of spices to the grinder to powder them further. Combine the ground spices in a bowl and store in an airtight jar or container.

For the Chai

1/2 teaspoon chai masala, above
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup milk of your choice (coconut milk is especially nice)
2 teaspoons black tea, such as Ceylon or Assam
Sweetener, to taste

Bring the water, milk, chai masala, and tea to a slow simmer. Cover and remove from the heat. Allow to steep for 5 minutes. Strain carefully into a cup and sweeten to taste.

Almost Instant Chai on Food52

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by Megan Scott

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • sarah
  • Sandra
  • AntoniaJames
  • Lost_in_NYC
  • kim place-gateau
    kim place-gateau
A southern girl with a globetrotting palate, I work alongside my husband John Becker to update and maintain the Joy of Cooking cookbook, website, and app. I love to bake, ferment, and preserve, and I spend an inordinate amount of time perusing farmers markets and daydreaming about chickens and goats.


sarah December 10, 2014
I'm not a tea drinker, but I would love to make this for my boyfriend who is. One question--would it work to put some of this tea mix into a tea bag and steep it in a mug that way, or does it really need to be boiled together?
Sandra December 16, 2013
I like the idea of the orange peel! Must try. My go to version of chai is actually more of a spiced ginger tea, if you will. Cup or 2 of water in a pot with at least a large thumb sized peeled and cut up fresh ginger. Bring to a boil. Turn heat down to a gentle simmer, add spices (crushed cardamom pods, a cinnamon stick, a few cloves, a few peppercorns) and 2 tsp black tea leaves ( or a couple of assam tea bags). Add milk, honey or sugar if you like. Turn off heat. Let steep. Strain into cup. Enjoy.
AntoniaJames October 16, 2013
I ground up a batch of this yesterday, also wary that the black pepper might be too much (I used about half of what was called for); I did not have any orange peel, so I slipped a sliver of candied orange peel and skipped the sugar. I used homemade almond milk. And green tea with toasted brown rice, as black tea has more caffeine in it than I want. I plan to go back and grind up some more pepper to add to the mix. (I use Oaktown Spice Shop's outstanding black tellicherry for this.) Great blend! Plus the candied orange peel made quite a nice little dividend when all was said and done. ;o)
Lost_in_NYC October 16, 2013
You could change the title from "Almost Instant Chai" to "Actual Chai" by changing a few steps.

1) Boil water, tea leaves, sugar and the spices together until it comes to a real roaring boil (like pasta water boil). You should be able to smell the fragrant tea and spices at this point and the water is almost 'black'.
2) Pour in the milk (as much or as little to your liking). Keep it on a low-medium to medium heat. It will begin to boil and rise up with a milky foam. Make sure to watch the stove at this point as its a hassle to clean up the milky foam if it boils over.
3) Once the foam rises, you can keep it on a low simmer for another 1-3 minutes if you'd like a stronger brew. Strain the tea and spices into a mug and enjoy!
kim P. October 15, 2013
Chai is one of my favorite hot drinks, and it's so satisfying to make it at home. Thanks for a great recipe!
raspberryeggplant October 15, 2013
Wow, that is a LOT of black pepper!
petitbleu October 15, 2013
Yes, it sure is! I wanted a chai with some kick, and this one has it. That's why you only need about 1/2 teaspoon of the spice powder for a cup of chai. If you think it might be too much, feel free to decrease the amount of pepper in the mix. To my tastebuds it's about perfect, but we all know how different palates can be!
Angela B. October 15, 2013
Beautiful photos! Excited to try out this recipe :) Thanks for sharing!