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!

8 thoughts on “How to Properly Prepare Southern Sweet Tea

  1. Baking soda neutralizes the ph. 🙂
    I am also a big fan of ‘real’ (not syrupy!) sweet tea.

    I was horrified once when I went to the house of a friend, and her parents kept an aluminum pot of tea water on the stove to ‘steep’ for days before mixing it with the water/sugar…can you say moldy?

  2. my family’s southern sweet tea: six tea bags, steep for at least an hour, two cups of sugar to the gallon. so . . . i guess i grew up on much stronger, sweeter tea. =)

  3. Yeah, I am with Jessica. Mom did her tea about half an hour with a good cup to cup and a half of sugar.

    I like it really strong.

    The best tea I have had in resturant is Chick Fil A. Hmmm…. I wonder how they do it?

    Hubby is from Michigan and the way they make tea is horrible. (Sorry people from the North!)

    They boil the tea bags in a pan of water, and then dilute the tea with water…. A LOT of water. It tastes like nothing but water, LOL!

  4. I’m afraid you’ve lost me on this one. I would have to be dying of a head cold and stuck in blizzard in Greenland before I would even dream of putting a drop of honey in my hot tea. So you can imagine how I feel about sugar in my iced tea. Ain’t happening…ever.

    I gag on just about every tea I’ve ever been given in the south. 3/4 of a cup of sugar in a gallon of tea? Good heavens. I think I’ll stick to being Californian. 😛 I don’t think my taste buds are developed enough for sweet tea.

  5. So, how full do you fill the gallon container with water to make the concentrate? My brothers-in-law love sweet tea, so I want to try this for them some time.

  6. I ♥ sweet tea! I was raised on it, and I’m from the Pacific Northwest! But my parents were from North Carolina, so that explains it. I was horrified the first time I ordered iced tea in a restaurant – blech! I like to say that “I like a little tea with my sugar!” 😀 I’ve been craving sweet tea the last couple days, and now I think I’ve determined to make some tomorrow. Thanks!

  7. Yes, the baking soda neutralizes the tannic acid in the tea leaves. But if you put too much, you (I) can taste it. So just a pinch will do it!
    I’m from Tennessee, and I love tea…I don’t ever drink coffee! But I’m not a “purist”…I have to have the sweetness, and I love a squeeze of lemon in it. My Grandfather always thought it was ridiculous to put sugar in tea to make it sweet, then squeeze lemon in it to make it “SOUR”. He just didn’t realize how well they blend together! 😀

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