I fell in love with the idea of chai through the cartons of this drink mix from the grocery store. The milky sweetness partnered with the astringent black tea drew me in, but the warm spices that lingered between sips kept me drinking. It wasn't long before the sweetness of those chai drink mixes became too much for me and I started experimenting with chai lattes at home.
This chai latte gives you complete control over your chai latte experience, from the tea and the spices, to the sweetener and type of milk. The result is a creamy cup of black tea subtly spiced and fragrant with cinnamon, black pepper, and ginger, and just the right amount of sweetness, so near perfect that you'll skip the coffee shop chai (or the carton) and come home to make a pot of this at tea time.
What Is a Chai Latte?
A chai latte takes the flavors associated with masala chai, a common spiced tea drink present in most households throughout India (and now most of the world), and amps ups its milkiness with a technique for frothy steamed milk borrowed from homemade lattes.
Lucky for us, masala chai is almost always made with milk and is brewed with milkiness in mind, but before we get to frothing the milk, we need to brew a strongly spiced batch of black tea and sweeten it slightly.
Looking for masala chai recipe? Here are two of our favorites.
In most instances a masala chai is typically what we're seeking when we order a "chai tea latte" — although we should drop the "tea," as chai literally means tea. In these recipes, the milk is heated rather than steamed and both contain directions for making it by the cup.
The Best Tea for Chai Latte
Loose-leaf black tea is best for brewing chai for lattes. Ideally, it is made with an Assam or Ceylon tea, but English Breakfast or other black tea blends work wonderfully too. Loose-leaf tea is generally of a higher quality than bags, with large pieces and less dust, which can lead to bitter or tannic tea. Since we have to strain out the spices before making our chai latte anyway, bagged tea would be no time-saver here.
That being said, if bagged black tea is all you have on hand or is one you particularly love, then by all means, use it! You'll want six bags for each batch of chai.
Learn more: Is Loose-Leaf Tea Really Better than Tea Bags?
Selecting Spices for Chai Latte
Spices are what make masala chai the drink we love. When it comes to which spices are essential, very few can agree and I'd argue that that is a very good thing indeed. The spices you choose will make a chai perfectly suited to your tastes.
Sheela spent New Year's Eve in India, drinking masala chai, and reported "In India, masala chai is definitely not as heavily spiced as it is here. I'd get one almost every day from the inns we were staying in or little cafes, and they'd often be spiced with just cardamom, just ginger, or maybe a little bit of both. It completely changed my opinion of masala chai for the better because I just loved that you could really taste the tea and the spice rather than all the dozens of spices thrown in overpowering everything."
These are the five spices that are essential to making a warming chai latte.
- Green cardamom: Cardamom is one of the most well-rounded spices we know. It's almost floral in fragrance, with a warming bite that is smoky and earthy. This is the one spice you cannot skip when making chai at home. Buy whole pods, rather than seed, and crack them gently before steeping.
- Cloves: Some might consider cloves optional, but they work so well with the other spices here, playing up the sweetness of cinnamon and the spice of the black pepper while perfuming the whole pot of tea.
- Cinnamon stick: Cinnamon is one of the sweeter spices used for flavoring chai. Use sticks in the pot, but feel free to garnish the latte with a touch of ground cinnamon for a beautiful and fragrant finish.
- Fresh ginger: I supposed you could use whole dried ginger in chai as well, but it is usually harder to find. Besides, fresh ginger adds a nice, fresh spiciness.
- Black peppercorns: This everyday spice cannot be skipped when making chai; it gives the brew the heat that blooms on the back of our throats and balances the chai's sweetness.
The bulk bin is your best friend for making chai lattes regularly at home, as you can easily find whole spices that are fresher and less expensive than those sitting on the shelf.
More of chai spices: The 5 Spices You Need for Homemade Chai (Well, OK. Maybe There Are 8.)
Sweetening Chai Lattes
I have a terrible sweet tooth, but find that a too-sweet chai latte masks the spices. You can use granulated sugar for sweetening, but I recommend brown sugar or even maple syrup, as their caramel notes accentuate chai's spices rather than hide them. Add your sweetener to the warm tea base after steeping but before straining.
How to Froth Milk for Any Latte
You've brewed, spiced, and sweetened your tea, and now you must froth your milk — unless you'd rather have a classic cup of chai rather than a chai latte. The problem? You don't own an espresso machine or a frothing wand. Luckily there are three clever ways you can froth your milk for lattes.
Whisk it: You can vigorously whisk your milk while heating it on the stovetop, which we've written into the directions below. This method works best with 2% dairy milk and coconut milk.
Blend it: You can also froth the milk with an immersion blender before heating the milk in a saucepan on the stovetop. This method is best for non-dairy milks, like soy or almond milk, but also works with coconut milk, whole milk, or 2%.
Shake it: The other method is to shake the milk in a jar and then heat the milk post-frothing. This method works especially well with whole milk and nut milks.
Serving Chai Lattes
The best thing about making chai lattes at home is that you can scale the tea base recipe up and make a big batch to last all week. Warm and froth 3/4 cup milk whenever you need it. It won't keep as along as those cartons, just about five days in the fridge, but it will make the perfect afternoon pick-me-up.
How To Make a Chai Latte
Makes 4 servings
What You Need
cinnamon sticks, broken into pieces
whole black peppercorns
green cardamom pods, cracked
(2-inch) piece fresh ginger, thinly sliced
loose-leaf black tea, or 6 black tea bags
sweetener, such as brown sugar, honey, or maple syrup (optional)
cold whole milk, coconut milk, or other non-dairy milk
Measuring cups and spoons
Wooden spoon or rubber spatula
Pitcher or teapot
Toast the spices: Place the cinnamon, peppercorns, cloves, and cardamom in a small saucepan over medium heat and toast, shaking the pan occasionally, until fragrant, 3 to 4 minutes.
Brew the tea: Add the ginger and water and bring to a simmer. Simmer for 5 minutes.
Steep the tea: Remove from the heat and add the loose-leaf tea or tea bags. Cover and steep for 10 minutes.
Sweeten the tea: While the tea is still warm, add the sweetener and stir until combined or dissolved.
Strain the tea: Strain the tea through a fine-mesh strainer into a pitcher or teapot. Discard the spices and tea leaves. Store in the refrigerator for future use, or keep it warm while you froth the milk.
Froth the milk: For whole milk, froth the milk by shaking it in a jar or by whisking it vigorously over medium-high heat. For non-dairy milks, use an immersion blender to froth before heating.
Heat the milk: Heat the frothed milk in a small saucepan over low heat until warm.
Serve: Pour 3/4 cup of the warm tea base into each mug. Add 1/2 cup of warmed milk and stir to combine. Top with a heaping spoonful of milk froth.
Make ahead: The tea base can be made up to 5 days in advance and stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Gently reheat before frothing the milk.