How to Properly Prepare Southern Sweet Tea

As I’ve said before somewhere on this blog, I am from the south. GA to be precise. Anywhere you go in GA and ask for Tea the  default tea you will be served is sweet. Often times sickly, syrupy, thick kind of sweet. This is what I grew up with and considered normal. Imagine my shock and dismay to discover upon moving to NM that they don’t know what Sweet Tea is. Tea is Tea is Tea is Tea with nothing in it and that is the way they serve it. Upon my hopeful inquiries about “Sweet tea?” they helpfully deliver packets of sugar that they then expect me to pour over the top of my iced tea and consider it sweet. Since when does Sugar dissolve in ice liquid???  It doesn’t. You can stir and stir and stir and yet there will still be that little stubborn pile of sugar piled in the bottom of the glass. Even if you manage by some small miracle and a half an hour of vigorous stirring to dissolve a goodly portion of it into the tea the flavor just won’t be the same as properly prepared Sweet Southern Tea.

With an emphasis on properly prepared here I would like to defend Sweet Tea. Good Southern Sweet tea isn’t too sweet. It should not remind you of drinking syrup. It should be just sweet enough to have fully enhanced the entire flavor of the tea itself which puts the process of making it more into the realms of an art form than a science. It should also be a bit strong and concentrated since it is designed to be served over ice. The ice of course has a diluting effect and if one isn’t careful can throw off an otherwise perfectly made batch of Sweet Tea.

Let’s start at the very beginning…The only good place to start! (Sung in my best Julie Andrews Imitation Voice)

Water. You want this filtered or distilled. Tea seems particularly vulnerable to the usually subtle flavor differences of tap water versus purified water. Go with the pure. You want the tea to be all that the tea can be unimpeded by chemical flavors and impurities. If we wanted a hint of chlorine we’d add a drop or two to our finished product. The second thing with water is to make sure it is hot enough. You want this boiling. Not simmering. Not letting loose the occasional random bubble from the bottom of the pot. No, it needs to have just barely hit a rolling boil and then snatch if off the stove. I can’t tell you why but this makes a difference. Water over-boiled tastes flat, water not hot enough won’t bring out a full enough flavor from the tea so it needs to be “just right” for optimal results. And yes, this does result in a good Sweet Tea Craftsman hovering over a the pot of water so they can be there when the rolling boil is achieved.

The other crucial starting point is the tea itself. What kind of tea is used. My personal favorite brand is Lipton. Lipton tea may not be certified organic but is grown without the use of pesticides and chemicals. They now offer a “line” of Organic Tea that was the same exact cost as their normal tea in the last place I saw it. That is because it’s all grown on the same tea plantations that have never used chemicals. I try to avoid the “Fast Brew” or “De-Caf” or any other variations that are now available these days. The flavor is not quite right every time so I gave up on those and just stick to the straight up, plain, original Lipton Black Tea. For a Gallon of tea I use 5 to 6 Teabags. These should be shed from their paper packages, tear the paper tags off and their strings tied together into a bundle. This helps later when trying to fish them out.

I prefer Steeping in a Glass or Ceramic container of some sort. Steeping in plastic unleashes a host of chemicals from the plastic into your tea and the health nut in me tries to avoid that whenever possible. As you dump the boiling water on top of the tea bags do not direct the stream straight on top of the bags. Bags will break open and spill their contents everywhere. Ideally you would pour the water in, or boil the water in an open pot to start out with and set the tea bags gently on the top of the water. The hot water quickly sucks them in and the rich caramel color begins to seep into the water. Steep time is vital. Too much and it’s bitter. Not long enough and it’s weak and flavorless. Anywhere from 3 to 5 minutes is perfection in my experience. 3 Minutes results in no bitterness at all, The beginnings of bold flavor developing but nothing too strong. The full 5 Minute Steep should result in a bold flavor but not be long enough for things to get bitter. With experience under your belt you may be able to eventually smell if the tea is starting to get bitter or not. I can now take a quick whiff and know when its right on the edge of bitterness so I push the limits a little bit these days in order to get the boldest flavor possible.

When you pull the bags out, presuming it has not steeped long enough to be bitter, squeeze the tea bags out with a wooden spoon pressed against a small plate or bowl. Or against the sides of the container you steeped in. The best flavor is held right around the ground up bits of tea leaves so this adds an important extra boost to the finished product.

I grew up making Sweet Tea with white sugar. Back then it was White Sugar, Brown Sugar or Powdered Sugar. It was a lot harder to get your hands on the other sugar options we have today. These days I use Rapadura or other forms of low heat dried cane syrup. Un-refined. To me personally this adds a whole new dimension of flavor to the Sweet Tea Drinking Experience. Purists however may still prefer the cleaner, less complex flavor of white sugar. Some will tell you to put 1 Cup of Sugar per Gallon of tea. Other’s will tell you to put 2 full cups. If you prefer things to be sweeter you can certainly go with the full cup. I tend to get away with a bit less and now go for 3/4 or 2/3 cup of sugar. One way I’m able to cut back on the sugar without compromising taste is to add a pinch of Sea Salt and a pinch of Baking Soda. Yes, you read that correctly. Baking Soda does…something. I can’t even describe what. But it helps to make Sweet Tea Magic. I don’t know if this is a known rule taught in Cooking School’s or anything like that but I have learned it over the years. In the presence of salt sweet things taste sweeter. You can get away with less sugar if a pinch of salt is added. The pinch of salt is so very little no one can detect the salt presence but it manages to make the sweet taste of the tea even more sweet nevertheless.

Vigorously stir the sugar, sea salt and baking soda together in the still-hot tea concentrate. Add ice until the Gallon Container is full (something that won’t crack with rapid temp changes!) Give it one final quick stir and pour into a tall glass. ENJOY! A sprig of mint can be added along with a few crushed mint leaves at the bottom of the glass if so desired.

Despite how complicated I made it sound Sweet Tea is one of the easiest things to make in a kitchen. =D My Dad taught me how to make it when I was quite young. I’ve modified how I do it since then but the underlying principles are the same. That is a man that truly enjoys properly made Sweet Tea. I’ll have to let him try my modified version one of these days and see what he thinks.

Enjoy that tall cold glass of tea as Summer comes to a close!


Way back when I first started this blog I promised to post successes as well as failures. Although not purposefully, I’ve been falling down on the fail confessions lately. It’s just so much more exciting to write and share about something that actually WORKS vs. something that definitely doesn’t. =P

I haven’t had too many horrible fails in the realm of cooking traditional foods with no limitations on available ingredients.  Meaning, I’ve had the luxury of using the “ideal” or “best recommended” ingredient without having to seriously modify things in deference to food allergies. The new realm of Gluten free cooking however seems to have brought out the “fail” big time. Part of it is I’m just rebel enough not to follow the tried and true paths carefully carved out before me by gluten-free kitcheonistas that have gone on before. Just seems too…easy? So, I’ve been trying to plow my own way and experiencing quite a few fails along the way.

So to spare any of you that feel the urge to experiment with this or that let me share some of the not-so-great things that have happened in my kitchen the past few weeks.

Just last night ~ Fried Okra. Normally I season some wheat flour, toss the freshly diced okra in it, allow it to “sit” for a while so the slimy juice stuff binds with the flour to form a nice light crust when fried. So last night I tried the same routine with gluten free sorghum flour. It did *not* stick to the okra very well and fell of in it’s entirety when frying was attempted. Next time will try it with a binder like a light egg coating, or a light batter made with the flour before frying and hope that sticks better. Or maybe I’ll just find a tried and true gluten free recipe somewhere for fried Okra and play it safe. But only as a last resort, of course.

Sorghum flour Fail 1 was shortly followed by Sorghum flour Fail 2 ~ I took the seasoned leftover Sorghum flour after the okra had used what it needed. Added some raw cream and patted it out into a little dough patty. The rest of the family was having grilled cheese crisps on whole wheat tortillas and I was feeling a bit left out. The little dough patty was set upon the cast iron skillet with some butter to cook. It promptly began to fall apart. With some skillful persuasion with my spatula while cooking it managed to semi stay intact enough to  make it to my plate. With melted cheese on top it was Ok. Not a miserable fail but certainly not what I was going for either. Again, gotta work on figuring out effective binders for gluten free flours.

~Over-zealous-Culturing~ I made a batch of whole, raw milk yogurt the other evening. It’s been a habit of mine to add extra good bacteria in addition to the yogurt starter and the great bacteria that is already in high quality raw milk. A couple of capsules of Colostrum assures that the end yogurt is thicker and not as runny as it would be otherwise and a Capsule of the Pro-biotic blend Tummy Tune Up for good measure. Over-kill if you will. This has not backfired on me until recently and I ended up with thick, custardy, bubbly yogurt/cream cheese-ish globs coming through the top of the cloth I had rubber banded to the gallon jug.  The flavor was rich and since it was already halfway there I went ahead and made yogurt cheese out of it. Still. Totally qualifies as a yogurt making “fail”

Over-Cultured Raw Milk Yogurt Bubbling out the Top of Gallon Jug

Over-Cultured Raw Milk Yogurt Bubbling out the Top of Gallon Jug

~Baked Squash~ There are a few success recipes/formulations of this that came out of my experiments for another blog-post. But, the “fail” deserves to be mentioned here. For several weeks our CSA baskets have had a delicious, mild summer squash unlike anything I’ve ever used before. The first week I thin sliced it, layered it in a glass pyrex baking dish. Each layer was given a drizzle of Organic Olive Oil, or a few pats of butter, and generously sprinkled with seasonings. Put into the oven and baked the end result was delicious. Never one to leave a good thing alone I decided that although it was really good that way, Cheese would take it to a whole new level. The next week’s squash experiment included a handful of shredded pepper-jack cheese on top. That DID take it to a whole new level of decadence so I went truly wild next time. Dolluped among the layers of seasonings was some Salsa, just a little…And to top the whole heavenly thing off, fresh, whole mozzarella cheese. The kind that comes still floating like a creamy bubble of pleasure in a protective blanket of whey. Thick slices of this stuff were carefully arranged on top and then baked.  Excitedly anticipating the crowning achievement of my previous squash dishes it was very sad when I poked the fork in for the first bite. The mozzarella had become very rubbery/over-baked and seemed to have had a bad reaction with the Salsa/juices from the squash. My one consolation was that at least it was flavorful, if a total fail on the texture side of things.

Squash layered in pan with Whole Milk Motzarella Cheese thick sliced and layered on top

Squash layered in pan with Whole Milk mozzarella Cheese thick sliced and layered on top

Over-baked Motzarella Cheese topped Squash. Flavor great. Texture not-so-much

Over-baked mozzarella Cheese topped Squash. Flavor great. Texture not-so-much

Now you are all caught up on my most recent not-so-great kitchen projects. Next post shall feature something fail proof and yummy! =D

TeaTrap AKA Teavana

I love tea. And Coffee. But mostly tea. It’s so difficult to make a perfect cup of smooth, low acid, not bitter coffee that glides down without having to be doused in flavorings, syrups, cream etc. to be delicious. Although the hobby of pursuing coffee perfection is still alive and well in my life; tea is my constant, dependable, comfortable companion.  A dear friend first introduced me to the tradition, art, and enjoyment of a fine cup of tea years ago while I was still in my teens. Her legacy of tea enjoyment has lived on in my life and is now something I enjoy on an almost-daily-basis with both TheMan and Doodles.

Tea pardons a multitude of brewing sins. Tea comes in such a vast array of flavors, packages, mixes, blends, there is truly something for everyone. I can’t help but feel a bit sorry for the poor souls who’s only experience with tea is limited to Lipton and perhaps the chance encounter once upon a time with their Great Aunt’s favorite Earl Gray.

Personally I love the adventure of flavors that comes with tea tasting/testing. Experimenting with loose vs. bagged. Pre-mixes vs. making my own. Pretty much the whole she-bang. I’ve bought teas by the lb. from such wonderful on-line businesses as I’ve tried every tea blend Traditional Medicinals makes, picked my favorites and keep them stocked in my cabinet. I am three brands away from having tried every single brand of pre-mixed Chai I’ve ever seen (barring the ones that say “artificial flavorings” cuz that just doesn’t count as real tea in my book).

With my ever increasing tea experience it was time for an excursion into the holy-land of Tea. That place you smell before you see. The one that gives out free samples of it’s wares right outside it’s door because nothing sells truly good tea better than the tea itself. What is this place you might ask? This place of wonderous free-samples-of-tea? The sign says Teavana. Set back at the very end of the store, past stone age relic-esque cast iron tea pots, and the more modern looking tea pots (all with price tags large enough to make your wallet shudder) is The Wall. The Wall is literally floor to ceiling shelves supporting large containers of…Yup, You guessed it. Tea. But not just any tea. Only the finest (so says the brochure). Supposedly composed of only the top 10% of teas from around the world those boxes house an olfactory journey that will take you into indescribable realms. High on the scent of vanilla with warm undertones of caramel, carried along on a happy day dream punctuated with peach, apricot and ginger the cleverly trained spell casters, er, store staff coax their unsuspecting victims, that is to say, customers into a dreamy haze in which the question of whether or not to purchase vanishes in light of the more pressing and urgent decisions of black vs. white, Oolong vs. Green, or Mate, Herbal or Roobois for the base of the heavenly blends they’ll create just for you. Right before your very eyes. Or, more importantly, noses. In this state, and in light of the (out-of-this-real world of inflation that we live in) marvelous prices I had more recently been paying for tea at the a fore mentioned website of it is little wonder that my brain made the very reasonable assumption that the prices posted clear as day below the boxes were based upon pounds. Even at the assumed base of price per pound my frugal side winced a bit at some, cringed at others, shrugged and made peace on a handful of others before deciding upon which tea(s) to take home.

Having already decided to treat ourselves to some “Special tea” after entering the tea lair my friend and I put our not-so-clear by this point heads together and made our selections. Promising ourselves that we would just get a small bag of each to sample before coming back to get some in greater quantities. Positively giddy in anticipation we watched as they carefully measured out, weighed and mixed each of our custom tea’s. Clutching our little bags we waited in line to check out discussing which tea we would try first upon our arrival home. I don’t remember which one of us exactly first registered the total on the cash register. But I do clearly recall the mutual alarm in the looks we flashed each other. Our price assumptions were horribly, terribly wrong. Those were not price per POUNDS it was Prices per OUNCE. Oh yes, for certain types of the top ten percent of all tea in the world it is sold by the ounce for outrageous sums of money. Thankfully we had been trying to be semi frugal, even when assuming it was price per pound so the damage was not nearly as bad as it could have been. But still. For a few, very few ounces of tea the total loomed before us. It was fifty something-ish dollars before taxes. Horror dawned on us as we realized that this was not an item one could simply back out of purchasing at the last minute. A minor inconvenience for some staff person to re-stock. Oh no, nobody could re-stock these. These were our custom blends. That they had mixed for us only minutes before. Potential embarrassment and shame looming we forked over our money and walked out in stunned silence.

Back in the relative safety of the main walk-way of the mall with it’s varied vendors hawking hand creams from Israel and foreign language study programs my friend finally found her voice. “We tell no one. No one is ever to know what we just spent on TEA.” I swallowed hard and tried to mentally calculate how many months of skipping out on the occasional coffee treat I would have to go through in order to make up the blow to my budget that the mockingly light bags of tea had dealt. Numbly nodding I agreed to her command. Yes, it was best that we simply keep to ourselves the fact that we failed to notice the apparently also as obvious as the nose on your face “oz” markings and had been, in effect, conned into buying a three tiny bags of tea for a not so tiny bit of cash.

As time has passed however, and I stopped blushing every time I saw the little bags of tea hovering together like orphans in my freezer I decided it was time to pass along our story to others. There might be some other poor soul making her pilgrimage to that place. Lest she get swept away on the aromas they so carefully fan in your face as we did, it is only right that I throw myself under the bus of public humiliation and share our story. Technically since I didn’t give the exact total and my friend is still completely anonymous I haven’t breached her forcefully issued edict. I’m pretty sure she’ll still be fairly flustered and maybe even a little indignant when she reads this though.

In honor of finally making this story public I made a pot of the Peach, Apricot and Ginger black tea we bought. As the smell as rich as the flavor of the tea itself washed over me I felt all residual self inflicted recrimination melt away and the internal monologue began.

Hot Cup of Tea

Hot Cup of Tea

“Little wonder really… (inhale)…Maybe it was even worth it…(tiny sip)…(inhale)…It did only take me six months to repair the damage to my grocery budget…(inhale…happy sigh)…I bet even TheFriendWhoShallNotBeNamed might think it’s worth it now. It did result in a great story. An experience really. We can tell our Grandchildren we bought __ ounces of tea for $5____ Of course by then $5____ will be worth about fifty something pennies if inflation keeps up….I’ll just fix her a pot of this and serve it before I show her the blog post…(Sip sip)…Nobody can get too mad while inhaling this…and actually drinking it! Oh! the flavor…Yes, it was an experience alright, one of those experiences and memories that money just can’t buy…”

Even though my personal experience with Teavana left my wallet wondering what hit it I still highly recommend it for anbyody that does truly love tea. Save your pennies, or dollars even, go in knowing the difference between pounds and ounces and enjoy the experience. Their well trained staff can literally invent you a tea if you just describe to them what you love. It’s an indulgence every tea lover should experience at least once in their lives.

The rest of the time the frugality and quality of’s teas are more than tea-bliss enough for me. My budget is a lot happier too.

Doodles enjoying herbal tea and a Cookie/scone

Doodles enjoying herbal tea and a Cookie/scone

JuicyFuzzySweetPeachalicious Day

Some friends and I went in together to buy next-to-all-natural/organic peaches. We don’t mean just a few to maybe do a cobbler and eat fresh. Nope, nuh-uh. We decided to get enough to last for a while. Five bushels of peaches!

We’ve all eaten more than our fair share of peaches the past few days.

Processing Peaches

Processing Peaches

Some got turned into 22 pints of canned (Not freezer, will have to try that some other time!) Jam.

Pints of Peach Jam

Pints of Peach Jam

Others were converted into 15 quarts of canned peaches. Some with honey, some with raw sugar.

Quart of Peaches

Quart of Peaches

Some ended up as 1/2 a gallon of raw peach juice. A few cups of the juice wound up in peach ice cream.

Making fresh Peach Juice

Making fresh Peach Juice

The rest have been blanched, pealed, cut up and frozen. Or, of course, eaten fresh. We still have a few fresh ones hanging around. They just get juicier and sweeter with each passing day.

Peach Slices

Peach Slices

The yummiest recipe invention the day dedicated to the sweet-juiciness-that-is-peaches-produced was undoubtedly the peach ice cream.

Although no measuring happened (Who seriously expects me to measure anymore??) I can share the general idea and encourage experimentation.

Bit O’ Heaven Peach Ice Cream

-3 to 4 cups thick/fresh peach juice

– Raw Sugar to taste (Keep in mind this will be the sweetening for an entire gallon of ice cream as you taste test, my ice cream could have stood to be a bit sweeter than it was but some folks prefer a not-quite-so-sickly-sweet ice cream)

Combine juice and sugar together and allow to cook down/concentrate a bit so the juice becomes a bit thick and creamy.

– 1 can of thick/creamy full fat coconut milk

– However many pints of thick cream (preferably raw) are necessary to obtain the desired volume

– Generous splash of Vanilla. Aaaand one more for good measure.

– 6 farm fresh/free range egg yolks pureed in. Since I don’t have a problem with these being raw no need to add these in sufficient time for them to “cook” I used my hand held stick blender and added them in one at a time to ensure creamy consistency.

Taste to make sure all is well. If it isn’t quite sweet enough a small amount of powdered Stevia or honey can be added at this point to taste. It dissolves much better than sugar not to mention is technically healthier. Pour liquid ice cream into 1 gallon ice cream maker to fill line and proceed as one normally does when making homemade ice cream. Serve with a dollup of Peach Jam on top and/or chopped fresh peaches. This stuff is addictive. Seriously. The flavor the coconut milk adds is just enough to make this unique but not over powering enough that anybody can even quite tell what that extra yummy flavor is.

So what are your favorite peach recipes? Please share! I have a freezer full of peaches to turn into yummy things in the coming months and there is nothing I love more than some tried and true deliciousness from someone elses kitchen.