National Iced Tea Month
Hey, Y’all! Did you know that June is National Iced Tea Month? I figured there was no better way to kick this blog off than by talking about something that runs through the veins of every true Southerner: Sweet Iced Tea.
There really is nothing quite like a tall glass of iced tea; it refreshes your Spirit like no other beverage can on a hot summer day.
Southern-folk are known the world over for our iced tea. Known as “The House Wine of the South”, iced tea is a staple in every Southern refrigerator and is typically made sweet enough to induce a spontaneous case of “the diabeetus”.
We also called that kind of super-sweet tea “Memaw’s Tea” because it was what you may remember your Granny (a.k.a. ‘Memaw’) pouring in your plastic cup out of a gallon milk jug she’d washed (or worsh’d) and repurposed.
Why did it taste so dang good?
And why could you never seem to get it quite right when you tried to make it yourself?
Now, I’m not trying to take Memaw’s place but I’ve cracked the code on making iced tea that tastes fabulous and gives you all the drinkin’-on-a-wrap-around-porch-in-the-middle-of-summer feels.
Making The Perfect Glass of Iced Tea
Making truly great iced tea is deceptively simple. I mean, how complicated could tea bags, water, ice, and (optional) sugar get?
Welp, I’m here to tell you that it can all go south (bad pun) in a New York minute.
Making Southern Sweet Iced Tea is simple but there are factors involved that need your consideration in order to produce the perfect glass of it.
If you want to be the toast of the next barbecue or picnic you attend but don’t feel like cooking, bring a few gallons of this Southern Sweet Iced Tea and before you know it, everyone will be asking for your recipe and guidance to make this perfect summer beverage.
Let’s break down the components:
There are many varieties of tea including black, green, white, and herbal (caffeine-free) and you can make an iced tea out of any one of them.
However, when it comes to making true Southern Sweet Iced Tea, there’s only one variety you’ll use (black) and there are two brands of note to choose from: Lipton and Luzianne.
Now, listen up because this next part is very important…
Luzianne is the ONLY tea brand worth a hill of beans for making proper Southern Sweet Iced Tea.
Lipton might work in a pinch if you’re desperate and there’s no Luzianne to be found, but even then, it’s a questionable choice.
I’m serious; friends don’t let friends make iced tea with Lipton tea bags.
You may think I’m just trying to get a cheap laugh here but I assure you that is not the case; Lipton vs Luzinanne has been a point of contention at more than one cookout because every true Southerner knows Luzianne is far superior in quality (for about the same price).
I’m a tad biased in favor of Luzianne, in case you couldn’t tell!
Both teas are made of orange pekoe and pekoe cut black teas but that’s about where the similarity ends.
Luzianne tea is darker and bolder. It carries more of that delightful tea flavor and holds up to dilution better. It actually seems to develop more flavor as it sits in the fridge (but that could just be my mind playing tricks).
Lipton tea, on the other hand, makes a lighter brew, which can easily translate to producing the dreaded “tea-flavored water”. Nothing (I mean NOTHING!) gets under a Southerners’ skin more than being served a glass of flavorless, watered-down iced tea.
If you serve me a glass of tea-flavored water, I might wonder if your Mama raised you right?!
It’s one thing if it happens at a restaurant or in a non-Southerners home because, bless their hearts, they may not know any better.
But in a Southern kitchen? Oh, no ma’am. Unacceptable.
There is actually a third brand that many Southerners use: Tetley. The only thing wrong with Tetley is that it isn’t Luzianne! Tetley is also the tea Chick-Fil-A brews and they’re responsible for the slaughter of millions of chickens every year. Plus, they’ve been involved in their fair share of anti-LGBT controversy… so yeah, forget Tetley.
Jokes aside, they’ll all get the job done (yes, even Lipton) and if you’re on a tight budget, get whatever is on sale… but Luzianne’s flavor is objectively a cut above the rest and is worth the splurge. Enough said.
Filtered, soft water is best.
Tap water is “harder”, meaning it has more minerals in it, which can cause the tannins and oils in the tea to separate out, making for cloudier tea that may appear to have an oil slick floating on the surface.
If you have hard water in your home (most city water is pretty hard), make sure you at least use a Brita filter or just buy a gallon of spring water to make your tea.
This will allow the tea flavor to come through more and make your tea look prettier in the glass but honestly, this was never a consideration in my home growing up. We just made it with tap water and didn’t give a hoot about the aesthetics.
It’ll still taste good no matter what and if you’re making sweet tea, you’ll be masking a lot of the tea flavor with sugar. But do keep in mind that the more attention you pay to these details, the better your tea will taste, and the happier it’ll make you feel while drinking it!
Let’s talk about the sugar, Sugar!
First, you should know that not all sugar is vegan.
White sugar is often filtered through animal bone char (despite there being cruelty-free ion exchange options available), so you want to make sure the sugar you’re using wasn’t processed that way.
Even if you’re not a vegan, you never know when you’ll be entertaining a vegan houseguest. If you serve them sweet tea, there’s a chance they’ll ask about the sugar you’re using.
Since you’re such a good host, don’t you want to be able to assure them you’ve taken that into consideration when brewing your fabulous tea? Of course you do!
Here’s a short list of brands you can trust:
- Billington’s Sugar
- Bob’s Red Mill Sparkling Cane Sugar
- Diamond Crystal Sugar (All products appear to be Kosher – no bone char)
- Imperial Sugar Pure Cane Sugar (Kosher – no bone char)
- Kirkland Organic Sugar
- Now Foods Organic Beet Sugar
- Rapunzel Organic Whole Cane Sugar
- RedPath White Sugar
- Simple Truth Organic Cane Sugar
- Simply Balanced Organic Powdered Sugar
- Sugar In The Raw Organic White Cane Sugar
- Trader Joe’s Organic Cane Juice Sugar
- Wholesome Organic Cane Sugar
- Woodstock Farms Organic Pure Cane Sugar
- Zulka Pure Cane Sugar
My husband and I shop at Costco, so we always use the Kirkland Organic Sugar.
How Much Sugar Do You Use?
That depends on how sweet you like it.
My opinion is that true Southern Sweet Iced Tea should border on being “too sweet” without being so sweet as to completely obscure the flavor of the tea itself.
If you’re making a jug of “Memaw’s Tea”, chances are you’ll be using so much sugar it’ll actually start to thicken your tea, about 2 cups of sugar per gallon. I think that’s way too much.
Please don’t clutch your pearls or question my Southern-ness when I tell you this: I don’t particularly care for sweet tea; I actually prefer my tea unsweetened (or just lightly sweetened).
I know… the scandal!
That said, if I do make sweet tea, I find 1 cup of sugar per gallon to be more than sufficient to produce a very sweet, perfectly Southern, glass of iced tea that should satisfy everyone’s palette (those who enjoy sweet tea, that is) while allowing the flavor of that good Luzianne tea to still shine through.
When do you add the sugar?
Right after you remove the tea bags from the hot water.
You’ll want to stir the sugar in while the tea is hot in order to properly dissolve it. Otherwise you may end up with sugar crystals at the bottom of your glass and that ain’t cute.
Can you use a sweetener other than sugar? Sure!
You can use whatever natural or artificial sweetener you prefer but sugar is the traditional sweetener of choice for making Southern Sweet Iced Tea.
I’ve seen people brew their iced tea many different ways.
Something that always makes me cringe is when I see someone putting their tea bags into actively boiling water. That is a huge no-no.
You want to boil your water and then add your tea bags.
Don’t leave your tea bags in the water for more than 5 minutes, tops.
I set a timer for 4 minutes, just to be safe.
If you allow your tea bags to steep for more than 5 minutes, you’ll start extracting too many of the tea’s natural tannins, which will make your tea bitter and cloudy.
Southerners despise bitter, overly-strong tea just as much as weak, watered-down tea. Call us “Goldilocks” honey, because we need it to be just right.
Here’s how I brew my tea:
I start by boiling 2 quarts (8 cups) of water.
Luzianne tea bags come in different sizes: single, family, half-gallon, and gallon size.
I buy the gallon-size bags because I always make a gallon at a time and it’s easier.
If you aren’t using the gallon-size bags, the rule of thumb is to use 1 single bag per cup of tea, so that would equate to:
- 16 single bags per gallon
- 4 family bags per gallon
- 2 half-gallon bags per gallon
Whichever size you’re using, put your tea bags in the boiling water.
Immediately remove from heat.
Set a timer for 4 minutes.
Remove and discard the bags, then stir in sugar and baking soda (if using; more on that below).
Finally, pour another 2 quarts of cool water in and transfer to the container for storage in the refrigerator.
Let sit at room temperature for 1 hour before placing in the refrigerator (helps mitigate cloudiness).
Just like the water used to steep your tea, it’s recommended you use ice made with filtered water.
If you want to drink your tea straightaway, you could alternatively pour ice directly into your pitcher instead of the 2 quarts of water.
Just pour ice in all the way to the top and it’ll melt down to produce wonderful, instant iced tea.
My home ice-maker doesn’t produce enough ice that I have a lot of extra hanging out in the freezer, so I dilute my tea with the 2 quarts of water, fill a tall mason jar chock-full of ice, then pour my fresh tea right over the ice for the same effect.
The key with iced tea is using LOTS of ice. Fill your glass all the way to the top.
We make our tea strong (but not too strong) so that it’ll retain it’s flavor as the ice melts and dilutes it. This also makes your jug of tea last just a little longer in the fridge.
Side note: Drink up! Iced tea is best when it’s fresh, within the first 24 hours of brewing. It will hold up in the refrigerator for about 3 days but after that, it starts to go bad so toss it and make a fresh batch.
What you store your Southern Sweet Iced Tea in also makes a difference.
Glass containers are best. Plastic containers can more easily hold onto the flavors (and bacteria) of what was in them prior.
If you use a plastic container to store your tea, make sure the container is dedicated to ONLY iced tea.
Additionally, rinse your container thoroughly with hot, soapy water between batches. Your tea will sour faster if you pour a fresh batch into a container with old tea that hasn’t been rinsed out.
Growing up, we made our iced tea in recycled milk jugs and it worked. The general rule is “use what you have” but if possible, store your tea in glass.
Here’s a couple of good glass options:
Ball Half-Gallon Mason Jars (these are great if you want to make a batch of 1/2 sweet, 1/2 unsweet tea!)
You now have all the information you need to make perfect Southern Sweet Iced Tea.
However, there are a few other ways you can enhance and embellish your iced tea if you’re feeling adventurous:
- Baking Soda: It sounds strange but if you add ¼ tsp baking soda to your steeped tea while it’s still hot (before diluting), it helps the tea taste a little smoother and crisper. It also prevents it from getting cloudy. If you over steep your tea, the baking soda will also help cut through those bitter tannins.
- Lemon: I like my iced tea with a lot of fresh lemon squeezed in it. If you’re a lemon lover (like me), then you’ll find lemon and iced tea is up there with peanut butter and jelly.
- Arnold Palmers: The famous golf pro Arnold Palmer was known at all the big golf courses to order a combo of half iced-tea, half lemonade. The combo was so delicious that it caught on among his contemporaries and it’s popularity soon trickled out to fans. Now, if you order an Arnold Palmer at a restaurant, they’ll know to bring you a tea/lemonade mix. If you like lemon in your iced tea, this will surely kick it up a notch!
- Other Citrus: Play around! Orange, lime, even grapefruit are all fun ways to infuse your iced tea with a little extra flavor.
- Other fresh or frozen fruits: Berries, cherries, and peaches, oh my! They all make wonderful additions to your Southern Iced Tea. I prefer frozen fruit over fresh since it also acts like ice to keep my tea cool while slowly infusing flavor as it thaws.
- Flavored ice cubes: You can freeze fruit juices or use water enhancer drops to create unique flavor combos that’ll melt deliciously into your iced tea.
- Fresh herbs: Fresh mint is a lovely, traditional addition to iced tea but you could also combine fresh herbs with fruit to create some complex, delightful flavors, such as Strawberry-Basil, Ginger-Lime, or Sage-Blackberry.
- Booze: Yes, iced tea makes a great cocktail mixer! “Tea Punch” was very popular before Prohibition and is making a comeback. Luzianne has a Bourbon Iced Tea Punch recipe on their site if you’d like to give it a whirl.
I hope this deep dive into making Southern Sweet Iced Tea has been helpful. Post in the comments if you have any questions or feel like sharing your favorite iced tea tips, tricks, or traditions.
Love & Biscuits,
Southern Sweet Iced Tea
- Pot large enough to hold at least 4 quarts of water
- Glass container large enough to hold 1 gallon
- 4 quarts filtered or spring water
- 1 gallon-size Luzianne tea bag
- 1/4 tsp baking soda
- 1 cup sugar (adjust more or less to desired sweetness)
- Bring 2 quarts of water to a rolling boil.
- Remove from heat.
- Immediately add tea bag(s).
- Steep tea in water 4 minutes (set a timer).
- Remove tea bag(s) from water.
- Add baking soda and stir until dissolved.
- Add sugar and stir until dissolved.
- Add 2 quarts cool water, then stir.
- Transfer tea to glass storage container(s).
- If tea is still warm, allow to sit at room temperature 1 hour before putting in refrigerator.
- Enjoy tea within 72 hours.
- 16 individual bags or
- 4 family size bags or
- 2 half-gallon size bags
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