I won’t lie—I would pick chai over coffee any day. Chai has always had a special place in my heart. My family has long served it as a way to welcome people into our home and spend time with those we care about. Whenever my parent’s friends would stop by, even just to drop something off, they’d always invite whoever it was in for a cup of chai. Obviously, that would then turn into a two-hour conversation and catch-up in the living room, but that’s beside the point. It just meant more cups of chai.
My one caveat with any masala chai recipe is that everyone has their own “best” version. Every aunty I know has their own spice proportions and methods, but I love every cup the same. It’s their own version of sharing love. Looking back now, I kind of get all wispy and nostalgic about moments shared over a cup of chai. And since I don’t live at home anymore where a fresh kettle of chai was just one ask away, I had to start finding my own formula.
That, dear readers, is how we ended up here. This is my own version of the best masala chai recipe, tested over the years and tweaked to meet my cravings and memories.
images by Michelle Nash
What Makes the Best Masala Chai Recipe
On my journey to finding what the best blend of chai was that I could make on my own, I went on a bit of a scavenger hunt. To say I tried every chai I could find in my city would be a bit of an exaggeration, but I did my fair share of sampling. I did everything from sampling chai at all the local coffee shops to drinking bottled options from grocery stores to even testing several different chai concentrates and starters on the market. So what did my taste tests reveal?
1. A lot of ready-made chai is just too sweet for my preferences.
2. They’re missing the depth of flavor that comes from the co-mingling of spices, aka they are either too ginger- or cinnamon-forward in taste.
3. They don’t wrap up the feeling of getting a hug in a cup from your aunty.
I don’t know that there will ever be a chai that is as great as your mom’s or grandmother’s version. (I swear I’ve followed my mom’s recipe EXACTLY and it still doesn’t taste as good as when she makes it.) But what I’ve put together here is about as classic as it can get while also giving everyone room to experiment and tailor the flavors to their liking.
The Formula for Making Masala Chai
Every family I know has their own special version and secret (or not-so-secret) spice blend that makes their chai special. But for the most part, all of these masala chai recipes follow a certain formula:
- Black tea
- Assorted spices (cinnamon, cardamom, cloves)
That’s the thing about chai. It’s not really a true recipe. It’s more like a set of guidelines and suggestions to follow to create a delicious cup of goodness.
Tips for Making the Tastiest Chai
While I normally make drinks without sweeteners, you absolutely need a little bit of sweetness in chai for it to taste right. Most of the spices that are used in a chai blend lean towards bitter and earthy flavors when on their own. So if you don’t add sugar and have lots of spices that are naturally bitter, you’re going to end up with a drink that’s got a little bit of kick to it, but it won’t taste quite right or like a real chai. I’m not saying you need to add a lot of sugar, but finding that balance of sweetness helps to temper the spices and smooth out the flavor.
Other notes I’ve discovered from testing gallons on gallons of chai:
- Fresh-crushed spices are leaps and bounds ahead of powdered or pre-packaged blends.
- Toasting those fresh spices make a world of difference in releasing those flavored and aromatic spice oils.
- Chopping or grating the ginger helps infuse that spicy flavor more than just slicing rounds of the root. If you prefer a subtle ginger flavor, keep as cut rounds.
- It can be so much fun trying out different spice combinations. Experiment to your heart’s content!
I like making a batch of chai to store in the fridge, serving over ice the next morning in place of an iced latte. But IMO, chai tastes best when made hot and fresh. I do hope you’ll give this a try and let me know what spice combinations and proportions you like. Chai is one of these amazing recipes that everyone can put their own signature spin on—I would love to know yours.
This post was originally published on February 16, 2020, and has since been updated.