Should you put the milk in first or last?



Gulliver, in his travels, met people who fought wars about the proper way to eat a boiled egg.

The British prefer to argue about how to make a cup of tea. Should the milk go in first? Or last?

Since I am asked this question several times a day, I thought I might as well write down my answer.

I'm happy to talk about it - in fact, I'm happy to talk about most things.

But it might save a few people a bit of time, and enlighten those blushing violets who are too embarrassed to ask.

1. It doesn't matter very much.

2. You should have it exactly as you want it and not worry about which is correct.

3. There are two separate questions here, which are not related.

  • Firstly, what is the correct etiquette?
  • Secondly, what method makes the better cup of tea?

I will answer each of those two questions in turn.

The first question: what is the correct etiquette?

No doubt about this one. The correct form is to add the milk last.

There are two reasons for this.

First, poor china was prone to crack when adding the hot tea. Putting milk in first prevented this. So putting the milk in last meant that your china was of good quality.

Second (and in my view more important), is the procedural point. When serving several people, some might want milk with their tea, some lemon and some nothing at all. It is better to pour the tea, then give people the choice of how they would like it.

The second question: which method makes the better cup of tea?

How confident are you that you can pour exactly the right amount of milk into an empty cup?

I ask, because putting the milk in first makes a better cup of tea. The milk mixes differently.

For reasons that have not yet been explained to me to my satisfaction, it seems that the milk contributes a different, sweeter flavour when added first. It must be something to do with the relative temperature of the tea and the milk, and the way they mix.

But it only makes a better cup of tea if you get the quantity right. Most people put too much in when they put the milk in first.

The colour mixing that occurs when making a cup of tea is incredibly precise. Some people say it is the most exact colour matching that humans ever do. Most people can identify their preferred shade of reddish brown with extraordinary accuracy.

Adding the milk last means you can have you tea exactly as you want it.

In summary

  • If you are meeting your boyfriend's/girlfriend's parents, and they happen to live in a castle and/or the 1930s, put the milk in last.
  • If you trust yourself to put exactly the right amount of milk in, put it in first.
  • If you're not quite confident, or unsure, or making it for someone else, put it in last.
  • If you are serving a group of people, it's usually best to pour first, then ask them if they'd like milk and sugar.
  • If you forget any of this, don't worry - it really doesn't matter very much.

A footnote

Whilst on the subject of milk, for now I shall merely observe that there is a growing number of people who hold that it is sacrilegious to put milk in tea at all.

This is complete nonsense. If you prefer tea without milk, that's fine by me. Just don't stop other people from doing it - there's nothing wrong with it at all.

I'll try and write something about this soon - before I get lynched by one side or the other.