The English homemaker of the last century followed a simple ritual for washing her Brown Betty teapot.After use, the teapot was emptied of its spent leaves, rinsed with hot water, and turned upside down in the sink to dry. The Brown Betty was a common utensil in the home kitchen – or downstairs at Downton Abbey – where it was pressed into service several times throughout the day.
Made with red clay and covered with Rockingham brown glaze, this durable teapot was a staple in British homes for over two hundred years for two reasons: it held heat very well and, because of its reddish-brown color, it didn’t show stains caused by the buildup of tea tannins on the interior.
This rinse and dry method still works well with most teapots but, if the pot is a lighter color, the buildup of tea tannins becomes evident and an occasional scrubbing is needed. Dish detergents and a cloth will take care of most stains; however, if the pot has been neglected for some time, a bit of white vinegar or a denture cleaner can help remove the stain buildup.
Teapots await teatime at the Hotel Taj in Boston. Gold trimmed teapots should be hand washed.
Most contemporary china teapots are dishwasher safe. Do be careful if your pot has gold or silver highlights or if it is more decorative than functional. The gilding might be damaged or any decorative appliqués might be knocked off. And don’t forget that the most delicate part of the teapot is the end of the spout. Watch where you position it in the dishwasher.
Many tea drinkers also own iron teapots. I’m often asked if they will rust. Iron teapots today are coated with a product that protects them from rust. That’s one reason why you never scrub the interior of these pots with an abrasive cleaner or pad: you don’t want to damage that protective layer. Simply wash the teapot, allow it to drain completely, and wipe inside and out with a dry cloth. Avoid putting the lid on when you put it away and allow the interior to dry completely before replacing the lid.
The most delicate of teapots are likely the Yixing pots often used for steeping oolongs.These Chinese clay pots are porous and, over time, the clay retains the flavors of the tea. A tragic tea faux pas would be to steep Earl Grey in this pot because it would mean that every tea steeped from that point forward would be tainted by the flavor of oil of bergamot.
Yixing pots have for centuries been used for only one specific tea. An Asian tea drinker might keep one teapot for a Taiwanese BaoZhong, one for a Chinese Big Red Robe, and another for a Chinese Ti KwanYin.Soap is never used to clean these revered utensils.They are simply rinsed and allowed to air dry. It’s said that some ancient Yixing pots could make tea today simply by having water poured into them. The accumulated flavors of past steepings would add their flavor to the water and tea would magically appear!
Yixing teapots stacked high in a Parisian tearoom. Photos by Bruce Richardson.
This article first appeared in the November 2014 edition of TeaTime magazine.