How to Make Southern Sweet Tea
There’s sweet tea, and then there’s Southern sweet tea. Here's how true Southerners do it right.
Perfect Southern-Style Sweet Tea Recipe
Nix the powdered junk. Pitch the ice tea brewer. If you want real sweet tea, you need a pot of boiling water, tea bags, and lots of sugar. Anything less just isn’t real sweet tea. Ask any Southerner how to make sweet tea and this is more or less the process they’ll walk you through.
What kind of tea you use is important, although not terribly so. Sweet tea is not rocket science. However, if you ask most Southerners what tea they recommend, most will tell you Luzianne because it’s made specifically for iced tea. Nonetheless, Lipton, Tetley, or even store brand tea bags will work. Just keep in mind, for Southern belles, tea is serious business. When in doubt, buy quality tea.
In terms of bag size and quantities, it’s really a matter of personal preference. For a gallon of real Southern sweet tea, you’ll need six to eight single cup tea bags or two to three family size tea bags. You can even use loose tea, provided you know what you’re doing and can keep any loose leaves from escaping into your finished tea. There’s nothing worse than seeing a crisp, clear glass of ice tea with little things floating in it.
Brew, Don’t Bruise
It’s tempting to just throw the tea bags in a pot of water and put it on the stove to boil. Don’t do it! Never, ever boil water with tea bags in it. At the very least, you may singe the tea and make it bitter. At the worst, the tea bags will split or burst, creating a nasty mess. Instead, place a medium pot of water on to boil alone. Three to four cups is plenty.
Once the water reaches a low boil, remove it from the heat. Place the tea bags in to steep and cover. Let tea bags steep for roughly 10-15 minutes. The longer you steep, the stronger the finished tea. However, over-steeping makes bitter tea.
If you want or need decaf tea, you can buy decaf tea bags or simply decaffeinate regular tea. To accomplish this, boil two pots of water. Steep the tea bags for less than a minute in the first pot of water. Remove the bags and discard the water. Steep the tea bags in the second pot of water as normal. The result is 90-95% caffeine free tea.
Simple Syrup for Convenience
While the tea is brewing, make a batch of simple syrup. Dissolve two or more cups of sugar in three cups of hot tap water for a gallon of sweet tea. Stir until the water is clear. Pre-dissolving prevents that glob of sugar from settling in the bottom of your pitcher. Whoever gets the last glass will greatly appreciate you for this added step.
The Final Mix
Once the tea steeps long enough to reach your desired strength, pour it and your simple syrup into a pitcher. Stir the tea and syrup gently, adding enough water to make a full gallon. Taste test for sweetness and add more sugar, if needed. Cover and let stand until the tea reaches room temperature. Don’t just add ice and throw it in the fridge, this can make for cloudy tea that sours quickly. Serve cold with ice and a lemon wedge on the rim.
Traditional sweet tea is a Southern staple, but that doesn’t mean you can’t experiment with flavor. Adding mint sprigs, flavored syrups, and throwing in some flavored tea bags during steeping are just a few ways to add variety.
What’s your favorite twist on sweet tea?