Being a native of South Carolina, I have drank sweet tea all my life. I cannot remember a time when there was not a pitcher of sweet tea in the refrigerator. It is one of my favorite all-time drinks and that is why I am sharing how to make the perfect southern sweet tea recipe.
One time when I was in my early 20’s, I went to Chicago, IL. While there I went to a restaurant at the Navy Pier. The waitress asked me what I wanted to drink, of course, I said Tea.
What she brought me back was not what I was looking for or asking for. I took that first sip and realized It has no sugar in it! This was my first experience of learning that people outside of the South do not drink Sweet Tea.
You see back home when ordering tea, you simply ask for tea at the restaurants and they know what you want. If you wanted tea with no sugar, you would simply have to ask for unsweetened tea.
History of Sweet Tea
As stated before, I was born and raised in South Carolina. Some of the very first tea plantations were right here in the Palmetto State. Not only was South Carolina the first place to plant and raise tea, but it is also thought to have been the only state to grow tea commercially.
There are many who also say that sweet tea was born right here in our state of South Carolina as well. Check out this article from Southern Living that tells of how South Carolina was the birthplace of Sweet Tea.
What is Southern Sweet Tea?
Southern sweet tea is a black tea that has been steeped in hot water. The tea steeps for 5 to 15 minutes. The hot tea solution is then mixed with sugar so the sugar can be dissolved. It is then poured into the cool water. After that, It is then chilled and poured over ice. It is drunk as a cold drink at dinners or enjoyed anytime you want a refreshing drink.
Let me reiterate that sweet tea is not made unsweet and then you add sugar. You add the sugar while the tea is hot. It doesn’t taste the same if you make unsweet tea, then try to add in sugar. The only way to make it taste similar is to make a simple syrup and then add that to the unsweetened tea.
When to Drink Sweet Tea?
Southern Sweet Tea is a drink that is enjoyed by the gallons year-round in the south. We drink it at meals, when we have been outside and are hot and sweaty, as well as sipping it on our front porches. Nothing quenches your thirst on a hot day like sweet iced tea! Dolly Parton even coined the phrase “House Wine of the South” in the movie Steel Magnolias!
But just as with food recipes that have been passed down from generation to generation, there are many variances and sweet tea is no different. It can be very subjective depending on who you ask.
With that being said this southern sweet tea recipe I am sharing has been passed down to me by my mom which was passed to her by her mom. To me, this is the perfect ice tea recipe
Iced Tea Recipe: How to make sweet tea
Ingredients you will need:
Black Tea Bags
The first thing you will need is black tea bags. You can use loose leaf black tea but most southerners buy tea bags. Two popular brands are Lipton and Luzianne tea bags. There is also a lesser-known brand called Tetley Tea. To a southerner, the brand of tea bags you use is like siding with your favorite peanut butter brand or Chevrolet or Ford. You are either like one brand or the other.
Personally, I can’t tell the difference between store brands versus name brands so we use store brands.
In my recipe, I use three family size tea bags to make 1 gallon of tea. You could also use 5 to 6 regular-size tea bags, but it is simply a personal preference.
If you look up sweet tea recipes, you will find one thing that is different about each one, the amount of sugar to put in it. This is very subjective just like the brand of tea bags you use. I recommend you start out with 1 ½ cups of white granulated sugar.
Personally, I use ¾ of a cup of white granulated sugar. If you like your tea sweet like Mcdonald’s Sweet tea, use 2 cups. If you like it less, use 1 to 1 ½ cups of sugar. For the sake of the recipe, we are using 1 ½ cup of sugar.
To start with, you will need 2 cups of water. This will be used to steep the tea bags. Then you will need roughly 14 cups of cold water to fill your gallon pitcher the rest of the way up. Use tap water but if you have a water filter, that will produce the best taste.
Baking Soda is the secret ingredient to making smooth southern sweet tea. My mom always added this to her tea, she called it tempering, of course, this was passed down from generations but it is known by most southerners.
Black tea has tannins in it. That is what makes the color of the tea dark. The more tea bags you use, the longer you steep them, and the hotter the water, will all result in more tannins being released.
Adding baking soda takes out the bitterness of the tannins as it is thought to neutralize the tannic acid.
Adding in baking soda will also cause your tea to get darker in color. It will have that nice rich brown tint.
You only need a pinch of baking soda, approximately ¼ of a teaspoon.
How to Make it:
Step 1. Start with a small pot or small saucepan. Add in two cups of water.
Step 2. Add in your tea bags. I like to tie the strings together as it makes it easier to get them out later on.
Step 3. Bring water to a boil, then remove the pan from the heat.
Step 4. Let the tea bags steep for 5 to 15 minutes. The longer it steeps the stronger it will be.
Step 5. Add your sugar to your heat-safe pitcher that you are using.
Step 6. After the tea has steeped, pour hot tea over the sugar. Give the bags a gentle squeeze. Remove tea bags and add them to your compost pal or toss them in the trash. Stir well until the sugar has dissolved.
Step 7. Fill the picture up the remaining way with cool water.
Step 8. Refrigerate the tea to get it cold. Once it has chilled, pour a glass of southern sweet tea over ice, add a few lemon wedges and enjoy!
Note: Some Southerners recommend not boiling the water, bring the water up to temp just before it starts to boil then add in the tea bags. I personally have done it both ways and cannot tell a difference.
Also, If you let the tea refrigerate for a few hours or even come back the next day, it will darken up and have a stronger flavor. If you try it right after you make it, it will be very light in color and taste. Just remember it will get stronger and darker the next day.
Simple Tip: Do not throw those tea bags out. Place them in a kitchen compost bin. Then add to your compost pile outside. They are great for the compost or the worm bin.
How To Make The Perfect Southern Tea (Recipe)
- 3 family size Black tea bags or 5 to 6 regular size tea bags
- 1 1/2 cups white granulated sugar
- 16 cups water
- 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
- Step 1: Start with a small pot or small saucepan. Add in two cups of water.
- Step 2: Add in your tea bags. I like to tie the strings together as it makes it easier to get them out later on.
- Step 3: Bring water to a boil, then remove the pan from the heat.
- Step 4: Let the tea bags steep for 5 to 15 minutes. The longer it steeps the stronger it will be.
- Step 5: Add your sugar to your heat-safe pitcher that you are using.
- Step 6: After the tea has steeped, pour hot tea over the sugar. Give the bags a gentle squeeze. Remove tea bags and add to your compost pal or toss in the trash. Stir well until the sugar has dissolved.
- Step 7: Fill the picture up the remaining way with cool water.
- Step 8: Refrigerate the tea to get it cold. Once it has chilled, pour a glass of southern sweet tea over ice, add a few lemon wedges and enjoy!
How much tea will this make?
This recipe makes 1 gallon of southern sweet tea.
Can I use a glass Pitcher?
I personally use a plastic one-gallon tea pitcher like the one made by Rubbermaid. You can use a glass pitcher but be careful putting hot liquid in a cold glass pitcher when you are making southern sweet tea.
It can shatter on you sending shards of glass everywhere. Make sure to use a heat-safe glass pitcher.
If you don’t have a heat-safe pitcher, you may need to mix the sugar in the pot with the tea.
Then add your cold water to the glass pitcher before pouring in the tea/sugar mixture. Basically, you just make this recipe in reverse.
How do I keep the iced sweet tea from watering down in my glass?
One trick to keep your tea from watering down is to freeze tea in ice trays. Then use the sweet tea ice cubes as your ice!
Can I use a substitute for white granulated Sugar?
Yes. There are many alternatives you can use for a sugar substitute. Here are a few: Honey, Agave nectar, Splenda, Stevia, and raw cane sugar.
Can I Add in Fresh Mint?
Yes. Some southerners will add a sprig of mint to their glass of iced sweet tea.
Check out these other recipes that I am sure you will love as well!