Tea has a long history as one of the world's most popular beverages, and it's a cultural touchstone in countries as far apart as England and Japan. Drinking your tea is only a starting point, though. The tea bags left when you're finished brewing your drink have a surprising number of practical uses all their own.
Start Seeds for Your Garden
Why spend good money on seed starting cells and potting mix, when tea bags work perfectly well for many seeds? To get a jump start on gardening season, moisten a number of leftover tea bags and arrange them on a tray. Tear or cut a small opening in the top of each bag, and nestle a seed into it. Cover the tea bags with a paper towel, to keep them from drying out and protect the seeds from the harsh light as they germinate. Keep the towel moist until your seeds sprout, then pot them up or transplant them directly outside.
Cook With Tea as Your Liquid
Your once-brewed tea bags might not make a strong enough cup to enjoy on its own, but simmering several of them in hot water can make a flavorful enough liquid to replace stock, broth or plain water for cooking. Floral jasmine tea, wine-like oolong and smoky lapsang souchong can all add distinctive flavors to your cooking, but any tea brings something to the table. Try it in your next batch of porridge, rice or other grain dishes, or even in soups to balance out a sweet ingredient like squash or carrots. Herbal teas are good for this, too.
Relieve Soreness & Soothe Skin
The same tannins that give tea its palate-cleansing astringency can do wonders for your skin. Moisten your used tea bags and use them on sunburnt shoulders, ears, noses or other areas you may have missed with the sunscreen. They'll feel cool and soothing, and speed up healing. The same astringent, skin-tightening effect can help relieve puffy, swollen eyes, slow the bleeding from small cuts and scrapes, and even soothe your aching gums after an extraction or other minor dental work.
Deodorize Your Home
The used leaves from your tea bags have a number of useful properties, and one of them is a little-known ability to deodorize. Drop a dry tea bag into each of your runners between uses, for example, or when you're putting shoes into storage for a few months. A bowl of dry tea leaves in the refrigerator can help absorb "off" odors and keep them from your food, and you can scrub your hands with tea leaves after handling strongly-scented foods like fish or onions. You can even open a few tea bags and rake the leaves into your cat's litterbox.
Revive Wooden Floors or Furniture
If your hardwood floors or wooden furniture are starting to show their age, you can re-use your tea bags to restore their luster. Moisten a tea bag or two — they should be damp, but not wet — and gently buff your furniture or floorboards with them. The tea gently stains and polishes the surface, making fine scratches almost invisible and helping camouflage deeper ones. Once the surface of the wood has dried, buff it with a soft, dry, lint-free cloth to bring up the shine.
Clean and Restore Leather
Aside from wood, you can also use tea bags to restore worn but loved leather goods in any shade of brown, from furniture and shoes to your favorite purse. It's perfectly logical when you think about it, because leather is made with tannins in the first place. Again, moisten the tea bags and use them to buff the leather lightly and gently. Once the leather dries, buff it with a soft cloth. If you have a commercial protectant or sealant, apply that afterwards to help protect the rejuvenated leather.
Flavor Gourmet Meals With Tea Smoke
Here in North America, foods are mostly smoked over chips of hardwood. In much of Asia, tea is used to give foods a similarly savory flavor. To try it at home, empty the dry tea from a few used bags into the bottom of a pot or a wok with a tight-fitting lid, along with an optional handful of rice. Put a trivet over the tea, close the lid, and toast it over medium heat until you see the first few wisps of smoke. Add your fish, poultry or meat, and clap the lid back on tightly. After a few minutes, turn off the heat and let the food rest in the smoke for 30 or 40 minutes (longer for thick foods, shorter for thin). Be sure to open a window, or crank up your vent hood!
Get Your Fire Started
If you have a wood stove or a fireplace, or if you regularly go camping and want to light camp fires easily, used tea bags make excellent fire starters. Dry the bags thoroughly, then dip them into paraffin or melted candle wax to waterproof them and make them extra flammable. Pro tip: Tea bags with strings on them are easier to dip without getting your fingertips into the hot wax. When you want to light a fire, nestle one or two tea bags into your kindling and light them with a long match or a barbecue lighter. They'll burn merrily, even in the rain.
A Nice, Refreshing Soak
Tea's healing, calming qualities go well beyond its virtues as a beverage, as well. The next time you feel the need to "Zen out" after a long day, throw a handful of your saved tea bags into a hot tub. The tea's soothing astringency will tone and tighten your skin, and help you relax. This works with either green or black tea, and herbal teas can make your bath even better. They lack the tannins of regular tea, but the aromas of mint, chamomile and other herbal concoctions can help you find that serenity you've been missing.