A tea strainer is a type of strainer that is placed over or in a teacup to catch loose tea leaves. It has an interesting history.
Documentation of tea tools such as the tea strainer appear in ancient history, the earliest models were likely made of bamboo, and later evolved into stainless steel, sterling silver, china, porcelain, silicon, and linen. During the Tang Dynasty in China, a small book called “Classic of Tea” was written describing tea utensils, and they were made to help Buddhist monks keep living things (such as small bugs) out of the drinking water.
However, using a tea tool to keep run away tea leaves out of a cup did not become a cited use of the strainer until the 17th century when Dutch merchants made tea more readily available to those outside of the Chinese dynasty. British royals then increased the popularity of tea as their preferred beverage, and it was not long before a newfound fanaticism for tea in Great Britain spread to the American colonies, as did a growing demand for products that could separate loose tea leaves from liquid with ease and flair.
Why did people use a strainer to separate out tea leaves in Great Britain and not in China? While the method of serving tea from a teapot with the tea loose in the pot was a practice used in both countries, the reason China may not have required a tool to remove leaves from their cup likely had to do with the types of tea leaves they were producing. The British owned tea plantations, in countries such as India, produced finer black tea leaves that did not require as much space to expand inside of a tea pot, where as the leaves prepared on the Chinese plantations would expand far more in the pot, and were therefore less likely to land or be bothersome inside a tea cup.
This common approach to serving tea with smaller tea leaves required a solution to avoid ending up with a cup, and mouth, full of tea leaves. The obvious solution was a strainer basket. In the Victorian era, tea strainer baskets, similar to those still used in tea parlors today, were made to sit on top of the cup to capture the leaves when pouring the tea from a tea pot into the individual cups.
Another solution was a tea-removing device called a mote spoon. Mote spoons act as search and rescue spoons to remove tea leaves from individual teacups. The tea would be brewed loose in the teapot, so any tea that ended up in the cup could be removed with a long handled spoon with holes in the spoon to remove rogue tea leaves and keep the steeped water in the cup. The handle also helped keep the teapot spout free of leaves and could help unclog any leaves trapped when pouring.
Stainless steel tea strainers and tea infusers gained popularity in the late 19th century. Big name tea strainer producers, such as Tiffany and Gorham, could use fine silver to create quality, heavy, and sturdy strainers, for those who could afford it. There were many varieties of strainers at that time, but it was more likely that smaller designers who could not afford to mass-produce these quality strainers out of silver made them into unique shapes to attract consumers with lighter wallets. And borne was the tea strainer we are accustomed to today.
When tea is brewed in the traditional manner in a teapot, the tea leaves are not contained in teabags; rather, they are freely suspended in the water. As the leaves themselves are not consumed with the tea, it is usual to filter them out with a tea strainer. Strainers usually fit into the top of the cup to catch the leaves as the tea is poured.
Some deeper tea strainers can also be used to brew single cups of tea, much as teabags or brewing baskets are used – the strainer full of leaves is set in a cup to brew the tea. It is then removed, along with the spent tea leaves, when the tea is ready to drink. By using a tea strainer in this way, the same leaves can be used to brew multiple cups.
Despite the fact that tea strainer use has declined in the 20th century with mass production of the tea bag, it is still preferred among connoisseurs, who claim that keeping the leaves packed in a bag, rather than freely circulating, inhibits diffusion. Many assert that inferior ingredients, namely dust-quality tea, are often used in tea bags.
Tea strainers are usually either sterling silver, stainless steel, or china. Strainers often come in a set, with the strainer itself and a small saucer for it to rest on between cups. Tea strainers themselves have often been turned into artistic masterpieces of the silver- and goldsmith's craft, as well as rarer specimens of fine porcelain.
Brewing baskets (or infusing baskets) resemble tea strainers, but are more typically put in the top of a teapot to keep the tea leaves contained during brewing. There is no definitive boundary between a brewing basket and a tea strainer, and the same tool might be used for both purposes.
Tea strainers may also be used for separating milk solids from ghee. A further use is to separate the liquid from the solid when preparing Béarnaise sauce.
Tea strainers or a similar small sieve may also be used by patients trying to pass a kidney stone. The patient urinates through the strainer, thereby ensuring that, if a stone is passed, it will be caught for evaluation and diagnosis.