Tea kettles have a simple function – heat water. Teapots, on the other hand, are purely decorative and meant for pouring already-hot water.
Modern versions of the tea kettle, however, are blurring the functional line between these two traditional cookware pieces.
Teapots have been valued for their function and aesthetics since the 13th century, and by the 15th century tea consumption became ritual as well as medicinal in Japan and China. Once England began to dominate the tea trade starting in the 17th century, tea drinking and teapots quickly spread worldwide.
From the simple to the bizarre, teapots reflect the diverse influences of social class, creativity and imagination. The Mad Hatter, Beatrice Potter, and your grandmother all had their ‘proper’ teapot solutions. The same hot water might flow from simple crockery, fine china, or sterling silver. The teapot has never been just about hot water.
Tea kettles, by contrast, have evolved steadily with the advent of new heat-conducting materials and electricity, and continue to have a rightful place in the modern kitchen despite the popularity of microwave heating. The basic choice is between stovetop and electrical.
Stovetop kettles may be made from cast iron, heat-resistant glass, aluminum, stainless steel, or copper. Kettles may include bottom ‘discs’ of dissimilar metals to improve thermal properties. For example, putting an aluminum disc on the bottom of a stainless steel kettle will improve heat conduction and shorten heating time as a result.
Electric tea kettles run the gamut from simple one-temperature units to programmable units complete with brewing and temperature settings, delay start, warming cycle, and one-cup features – all with digital readouts! Modern pots are likely lined with scale-resistant surfaces, and their attractive exteriors are suitable for table-side use. The epitome of this skip-the-teapot convenience is the cordless kettle than can be removed from its heating element base and used remotely at the table.
Tea kettle size for home use can vary from 48 oz. to 1.75 quarts. Handle construction can be anything from wood to metal to plastic. The only other considerations are type and length of poring spout, and whether or not you want your kettle to whistle when it is ready.
Tea kettles remain a standard piece in the modern kitchen and, with the addition of electricity, have migrated from their historical heat-only function to an attractive teapot function as well. Check out your local cookware store and get a hands-on appreciation for how this legendary piece of cookware has evolved. And don’t neglect aesthetics.