There was a time not too long ago when I’d open a box of tea bags, lift and lower one into a cup of hot water, wait a few minutes, et voilà! I’d wrap my hands around a toasty mug and sip away, and all was right with the world.
Then I met and befriended a tea sommelier (yes, it’s a thing) named James Labe—a passionate and studied guy who skyrocketed to tea-world stardom at the dawn of the aughts—and my tea-drinking life forever changed.
We found the best conventional and gooseneck electric kettles on the market.
James taught me that making a (way) better cuppa was well worth learning a few simple sourcing and tea-making techniques, understanding how to properly steep tea chief among them. I went from buying boxed tea to steeping loose leaves in a nanosecond.
Friends noted my newfound enthusiasm and bestowed thematic gifts, often in the form of steeping gear. I tried all sorts of models, from tea balls and basket steepers to paper filters you fill with tea leaves yourself. Ultimately, I circled back to James’ guidance: the best tea steepers are simple, inexpensive, and, most importantly, designed with details that fit the core principles of proper tea brewing.
A good steeper is one that’s large enough to allow for maximum interaction between tea leaves and water, with mesh that's fine enough to keep leaves and sediment from floating into your brew. If your steeper is too small, it won’t allow water to freely circulate and tea leaves to fully expand, yielding a weak and unsatisfying drink. You also want a steeper that allows your cup, mug, pot, or thermos to be covered during the brewing process—this helps your tea retain both heat and aroma.
To find the best tea steepers, I gathered 12 models to put to the test, taking a look at ball, basket, and paper varieties. Read on for the winners. For more about the testing process and factors to consider when choosing the best tea steeper, scroll to the bottom of the page.
The Best Tea Steeper Overall: Finum Stainless Steel Mesh Brewing Basket
The Finum Stainless Steel Mesh Brewing Basket took home the gold in my test and in many other tea steeper rankings I found online. It’s above and beyond the best steeper I have ever used, and it checked off every box of my tea-brewing needs. It fit well into multiple sizes of mugs and had a shape and size that allowed water and tea leaves to mingle with a generous fluidity.
Regardless of which type of tea I used—from extremely fine-cut tulsi tea leaves to whole blooming flowers, like chrysanthemum—the Finum was the only non-bag steeper I tested that kept leaves and sediment, no matter how small, from leaking into my cup.
Constructed of sturdy micro-mesh stainless steal and a heat-tolerant BPA-free plastic frame, the Finum basket steeper is offered in medium and large sizes that fit cups and mugs as well as tea pots and thermoses. It comes with a lid that fully covers the steeper and acts as a lid for the tea-making vessel, so my tea stayed hot and aromatic while it steeped. After brewing, the lid flips over to become a handy holder for the steeper to rest in as it cools.
After brewing my tea, I gently tapped the steeper on the side of my compost bucket, and my spent tea leaves dropped into the bucket with ease. I mostly cleaned this steeper with a rinse under warm running water and quick air-dry, but also gave it a run through the dishwasher, and tried a light scrub with a little drop of dish soap when I felt that it needed a deeper cleaning. All three cleaning methods were easy and worked perfectly.
At suggested retail prices of $11 for the medium and $13 for the large, this tea steeper was the lowest-priced basket steeper among my contenders, and was among the most affordable of all the steeper types I tested overall.
The Best Tea Steeper to Take On-The-Go: Finum Disposable Paper Tea Bags
For the best steeper to take on the go (think: air, car, and boat travel, and to take camping, on overnights, and to the office or school), Finum Disposable Paper Tea Bags won my vote hands down. Though these steeping bags are a single-use product, they are made of biodegradable, Forest Stewardship Council-certified paper, and—right along with your spent tea leaves—they can be tossed into your compost bucket.
Finum paper tea bags were easy to fill and well constructed; their glue-free edges stayed firmly sealed during and after use. The small size (which Finum calls ‘slim’) was perfect for making a single mug of tea. It had a nice wide opening that made the bag easy to fill without tea leaf spillage, and was both thin and roomy enough to allow water and tea leaves to mingle well. Its gusseted bottom flared out when filled, which also helped provide ample room for leaves and water to interact. The top flap folded neatly over the edge of my mug, which kept the bag closed and made it easy to pull from my cup once my tea was ready to drink. While, the paper filter doesn't offer a lid, I could easily cover my mug to keep my tea hot and aromatic while it steeped. To take these bags on the go, I folded the flap over a couple of times, then tucked the filled tea bag into a small sealable bag.
Finum bags are made in Germany and come in six sizes. They’re primarily offered in a chlorine-free oxygen bleached option (a process that’s considered to be safer for use than chlorine-bleached). The large size, which the company says is idea for pots, is offered in both the chlorine-bleached and an unbleached natural material. I found that my tea tasted cleaner with the chlorine-free oxygen-bleached tea bags.
A Note on Basket Steepers vs. Ball Steepers vs. Paper Steepers
For this test, I opted for straight-forward basket, ball, and disposable bag steepers. Basket steepers fit into a cup, mug, or pot and often come with a lid, which helps keep your tea hot and aromatic as it brews. They’re a great reusable option. Ball steepers, also reusable, generally employ two sides that open for filling and are then secured with a screw or latch. Disposable bag steepers are a single-use product, which are often, but not always, compostable and biodegradable. They tend to come in a variety of material types, including chlorine and chlorine-free bleached, as well as natural papers. Some bags are made of other materials, like polyester, and some employ glue, staples, string, or other non-compostable and/or non-biodegradable materials.
I eliminated any novelty steepers. Often made of silicone, these come in a host of shapes, with whimsical, pun-y names like Octeapus, Deep Tea Diver, and Teatanic. While they’re fun, cute, and functional on a basic level, they don’t fit the parameters necessary to make a high-quality cup of tea.
How I Tested
I brewed several cups of tea with each tea steeper, using teas of widely varying leaf sizes and shapes. This allowed me to evaluate whether the finest leaves and sediment would leak from steepers into my finished brews, and test how the steeper would handle larger leaves and flower-based teas. I looked at how well water and tea leaves were able to interact during brewing. I also evaluated the steeper’s design to see how easy it was to use and clean. Lastly, I considered the eco-friendliness of the materials used.
Factors I Evaluated
Shape and Design
The shape and design is ultimately what separates the wheat from the chaff when it comes to determining a winning tea steeper. The three significant questions are: Does the steeper allow for maximum interaction between water and tea? Is the material tightly-woven enough that leaves and sediment from even the finest of teas won’t leak into your brew? Does the steeper come with its own cover? (Or, if not, can your cup, mug, pot, or thermos be covered while the steeper is in use?) I tested ball, bag, and basket steepers in a variety of shapes, sizes, and materials, including round, oblong, stainless steel, steel mesh, paper, and polyester, looking closely at these three factors to determine which steepers were best.
Ease of Use
Is the steeper easy to use and clean?
I tested products that range from $4 to $17, looking for a functional, well-designed steeper at the best possible price point.
Other Steepers I Tested
The FORLIFE Brew-in-Mug Extra-Fine Tea Infuser with Lid was a stylish steeper made mostly of stainless steel. It had a generously sized silicone-rimmed lid which stayed cool to the touch and could be flipped over to become a holder for the steeper. It brewed a good tasting cuppa, but its mesh holes weren’t fine enough to keep sediment from my finest tea leaves from leaking into my brew.
The Oxo Brew Tea Infuser Basket had a particularly sturdy build and included a couple of smart design features: namely, two handles with silicone touch points underneath to keep them cool to the touch. Like the FORLIFE, it also had a silicone-rimmed lid that flipped to become a tray for the basket, and it brewed a delicious cup of tea. Though this model didn’t leak as much sediment as the FORLIFE, it still let some through when used with very fine tea leaves.
The Oxo Twisting Tea Ball Infuser had a nifty one-and-done twist open design that made it much easier to fill than the classic ball steeper design. The steeper's long neck, however, made it difficult to cover your cup or pot during steeping. Additionally, since the diameter of this ball is only about 1 1/2 inches, tea leaves become cramped, limiting their interaction with water. It's also marketed as being best for pearls, full-leaf, and large-leaf teas. When I wanted to steep finer teas, I was outta luck—they swam through the holes of this steeper and into my brew. Larger teas, like chrysanthemum, didn’t fit in this type of steeper.
The Toptotn Loose Leaf Tea Infuser is the classic two-piece ball design that screws together and has a handy chain that hooks around the handle of your mug, cup, or teapot. This is the sort of model you could likely find in the housewares section of a hardware store, and it’s cheap ($12 for a package of 6 on Amazon at the time of writing. That said, who needs six of these?). But with just a few holes on only one side of the steeper, the water and tea interaction was the weakest among my contenders.
The HIC Snap Ball Tea Infuser was another classic model. This one had a strong spring-action handle, which helped it stay closed after filling but made the steeper challenging to hold open while filling. The long handle made it difficult to cover my cup while my tea steeped. And the small size of the ball limited the amount and types of tea I could use.
The HIC Mesh Wonder Ball was generously sized, allowing water and tea to mingle with the fluidity that makes for a god cup of tea. Whatever vessel you’re using to brew your tea can be covered while you’re using this ball. The mesh was nice and tight on this steeper, but there was a significant gap at the seam where the two halves of the ball met. When I wasn’t using large tea leaf varieties, there was significant leakage.
The Steep Stir, which resembles a tube with a handle for stirring, was a novel design. A casing slides open to reveal a small chamber for your tea leaves. That casing, however, was hard to open and close, and the small size and rectangular shape of the chamber was awkward to fill without spilling tea all over the counter. The chamber was also too small to allow for proper water and tea interaction, and limited the types and amount of tea I could use.
Bstean Tea Filter Bags are chlorine-free, unbleached, and biodegradable. They cinch closed with what appears to be a cotton drawstring tie (so, theoretically, these are compostable, though the company does not explicitly say so). I liked the drawstring closure on these, but preferred the more roomy size and the larger range of size options of the Finum bags. I also preferred Finum’s FSC-certification and the explicit confirmation that their product is compostable.
T-Sac Tea Filter Bags were a close runner-up and nearly identical in design to Finum’s filter bag product. These bags are also made in Germany and they are compostable and biodegradable, but they only come in unbleached cotton material. T-Sac offers are fewer size options than Finum, and I found size #1 to be too cramped for larger tea leaf types. T-Sac’s size #2 (the equivalent to Finums “slim”) was nice and roomy, allowing water and tea leaves to mingle freely without being too large for a single cup or mug. Though I preferred the taste of tea made with Finum’s oxygen-bleached bag, these also brewed a great tasting cup of tea.
The Daiso Disposable Filter Bags were winning on many accounts: easy to fill, they are designed with a fold-over flap that fully secures tea leaves. Using them produced the cleanest, best tasting cup of tea of all of the tea bags. And at $12 for 500 bags, these were the most affordable bags to use for making a single cup or mug of tea. However, they’re made of polypropylene and polyethylene, which are plastics and not compostable. Additionally, this product ships from Japan and, while it did arrive with an adorable hand-written note, shipping took several weeks (a note about this appears in fine print of the delivery details Amazon, which initially suggest you’ll have the product within a couple of days).
While I tested several high-quality tea steepers, not one matched the Finum Stainless Steel Mesh Brewing Basket for quality, versatility, and eco-friendliness. Its wide design fits all common tea brewing vessels and allows for ample interaction between tea leaves and brewing water. And its micro-mesh walls block even the finest leaves and sediment from escaping into your brewed cup of tea. At only around $10, it’s the most economically priced high-quality tea steeper on the market. For steeping bags to take on the go, Finum Disposable Paper Tea Bags are well-designed and easy to fill. They come in a wide range of sizes, make a great tasting cuppa, and are made from FSC-certified paper that is fully compostable and biodegradable.
Originally Appeared on Epicurious