Salt in tea? U.S. chemist’s recipe brews controversy in U.K.

LONDON — An American chemist caused a stir here on Wednesday with her suggestion that the humble cup of tea could be improved with salt, prompting shocked headlines from British news outlets and an intervention by the U.S. Embassy in London.

Drinking tea in Britain, of course, is almost mandatory — the first thing that most reasonable Brits do when they come home is to fire up the kettle. Making a good cuppa is something that many here believe they do very well, thank you very much.

But Michelle Francl, a chemistry professor at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania with a new book on tea, has suggested techniques for making a perfect brew that are unfamiliar to many Brits.

She advised that adding a dash of salt could help the tea to taste less bitter. She went further, recommending a squeeze of lemon, which helps to remove the “scum” that can sit on the surface of the water. She is also a fan of vigorous dunking and squeezing of the tea bag.

Tea-loving Brits were notably distressed.

“American scientist reveals her secret to the perfect cup of tea … but adding hot milk and SALT risks leaving Brits at boiling point,” a headline in the Daily Mail said.

Sensing a potential diplomatic incident, the U.S. Embassy in London issued “an important statement on the latest tea controversy.”

“Tea is the elixir of camaraderie, a sacred bond that unites our nations. We cannot stand idly by as such an outrageous proposal threatens the very foundation of our special relationship,” the embassy said on X, formerly Twitter.

“Therefore we want to assure the good people of the UK that the unthinkable notion of adding salt to Britain’s national drink is not official United States policy. And never will be.”

But the country that once upon a time threw British tea overboard couldn’t resist stirring up a little trouble. The embassy added that its staff would “continue to make tea in the proper way — by microwaving it.”

The British government joined in on the fun, writing in a post, “We appreciate our Special Relationship, however, we must disagree wholeheartedly. … Tea can only be made using a kettle.”

On Wednesday evening, “microwave” was trending on British Twitter. Some noted that this wasn’t the first time Americans have trolled Britain by suggesting it is acceptable to microwave a cup of tea. And after an American TikTok parody about making tea with powdered lemonade, cinnamon, the soft drink Tang, British officials called out the military to clarify the situation.

Francl seems to be serious about her tea advice. In her new book, “Steeped: The Chemistry of Tea,” she documents tea-making practices that date back more than 1,000 years. She advises using short mugs, with less surface area, to help keep the tea warm, and she says warming up the cup beforehand is important as it increases the amount of caffeine and antioxidants released.

Throwing caution to the wind, Francl bravely weighs in on the Great Milk Debate and concludes that it’s better to use warm milk and to pour milk in after the tea. This, she says, will reduce the chances of it curdling.

Francl has suggested that practices on both sides of the Atlantic could improve. “You get some awful cups of tea in the U.S.,” she told the Daily Mail. “People here often use lukewarm water straight from a tap. It’s horrific.”

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