Many tea devotees love the handy accessories, and some good ones certainly exist. From electric kettles to cup-top strainers, pour-over ice tea pitchers, and steeping mugs, it's a tea lover's nirvana out there. Not the least of them is the cute little tea ball, a stainless steel creation that opens for inserting loose tea, then snaps shut to keep the dried tea leaves in one place as they steep in cups of hot water. But savvy chefs are highjacking the clever invention for something equally as steamy and savory as tea: hot soups, stocks, and sauces.
Tea balls essentially work as infusers for all types of tea, and sometimes are marketed that way under the name of tea infusers. As such, they work equally well for infusing soups with flavor from various herbs and spices. Continue to call them tea balls if you must, but they now have a much wider application, at least if you're willing to hack them for your savory, bubbling, stovetop creations.
They're sturdy enough to withstand boiling liquids, and the fine-mesh construction lets the flavors permeate your soups without the floaty bits ending up in your bowl. Even more convenient is the fact that tea balls are reusable, ready and waiting when a hot-soup mood strikes. Granted, there's not much space within a typical tea infuser ball, but there's a workaround for that.
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Bouquet Garni And Larger Tea Balls
When used for infusing soups and stock liquids, tea balls are basically an alternative to cheesecloth. Many chefs use what's known as a bouquet garni of herbs when making soups and broths, typically consisting of fragrant and flavorful fresh herbs such as bay leaves, parsley, and thyme. To keep them together and easily removable after cooking, a bouquet garni gets wrapped in cheesecloth or tied with baker's twine. A much simpler way of achieving the same result is to place the herbs and other spices inside a tea ball.
Tea balls are quite small. They may measure 1.75 to 3 inches across, which can be limiting when using a lot of herbs. Typical tea-ball sizes work better with small flavoring agents such as peppercorns or finely diced fresh herbs. But there's another way to get more usable space inside a tea ball, which involves a larger version with a different style. These have the same features as a typical tea ball but are designed to resemble miniature rounded metal baskets. They come with lids to keep seasonings firmly inside.
Basket-style versions of a tea-ball infuser feature a hook for looping over the rim of the pot, keeping the infuser in place while the soup, stock, or sauce bubbles to perfection. They're large enough for fresh spices as well as whole dried versions such as bay leaves. These infusers can measure 5 inches wide and 4 inches tall or even larger.
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