Sweet tea. House wine of the South. For the uninitiated, the first taste of sweet tea might be a jarring one. Often containing upwards as much as twice the sugar as a can of soda, sweet tea is among the many traditional recipes contributing to what is now referred to by the Centers for Disease Control as the “Diabetes Belt.”
My philosophy, much like Paula Deen’s, is all things in moderation.
Trying to offer anything resembling an all-inclusive sweet tea recipe is about as contentious as it gets. Everyone has their own way of making it. And in large swaths of the south, it seems like everyone is making it. In the majority of restaurants, you can ask for tea and hear a drawn-out “sweet or ‘un?”
Still, despite the differences of opinion on how to make it, there are certain ground rules,which I’ll get to in a moment. But first, a bit of background.
The first published recipe for sweetened, non-alcoholic iced tea appeared in Marion Campbell Tyree’s 1879 community cookbook Housekeeping in Old Virginia: Containing Contributions from 250 Ladies in Virginia and Her Sister States. Note that the recipe, from a Mrs. S. T. (Mrs Sweet Tea, perhaps?), uses green tea. Prior to 1900, the vast majority of tea in the United States was green tea from Japan, China, and – to a limited degree – green tea grown on American soil in places like South Carolina and Georgia. Black tea became cheaper than green tea around 1900 with British colonialism in India. It was nearly impossible to get green tea in the United States after 1941 when America went to war with Japan.
Already you see some of the signs of sweet tea in this recipe even beyond the sugar. Note, for example, the lengthy steeping time to produce a highly concentrated tea base. Also the use of an astringent – in this case, lemon.
Sweetened iced tea was a rare treat for many years and for a variety of reasons. Sugar was expensive and had to be imported. Before mechanical refrigeration, ice had to be shipped in from mountains or cut out of frozen lakes and ponds to be stored beyond winter. Thus, for the many years in its infancy, iced tea was a status symbol of wealth and decadence.
But sweet tea and sweetened iced tea are two very different things.
The general rules:
1) Since the 1950s, the tea of choice for sweet tea is an orange pekoe blend. Yes, this is usually different from what comes in tea bags generically marked “black tea.” And yes, there is a markedly different taste between orange pekoe and other blends. I find it very difficult to find this kind of tea in grocery stores in the north, and so I order mine online. For about $17 on Amazon, you can get enough tea to last you a substantial amount of time… assuming you drink the tea in moderation, of course.
2) The tea base is a much stronger concentration than what would be brewed for hot tea. The strength balances out the sweetness of the tea, and also accounts for the water from the melting ice.
3) A substantial amount of sugar must be added to the hot tea base. This ensures that the maximum amount of sugar is dissolved into a syrupy consistency. The amount of sugar varies according to taste and region, but a syrupy base is what separates sweet tea from sweetened iced tea.
4) The tannins in tea can make iced tea very bitter. My not-so-secret trick for mellowing out the bitterness is adding a pinch of baking soda to the base. It may sound weird, but I swear it’s magic and it works.
5) Traditionally, sweet tea is served with a garnish, though what the garnish is or whether one is used at all also varies according to taste and region. You can, for example, garnish with wedges, slices and/or peel of lemons, limes and oranges. You can also throw in some mint leaves or a maraschino cherry. Pick one. Two at the most. Anything more would be gaudy. And remember, ‘all things in moderation.’
So, having provided a bit of a background and some general rules, I humbly offer my personal recipe for sweet tea noting once again that everyone has their own way of making it. If this is the first time trying sweet tea, and you find it’s just not your cup of tea so to speak, don’t throw it out! Add some regular-strength lemon juice to the mix and you’ve got an awesome Arnold Palmer.
3 gallon-sized orange pekoe tea bags
1/2 gallon boiling water
1-2 cups sugar
1 pinch of baking soda
3 cups cold water or ice
Bring 1/2 gallon of water to a boil in a medium-sized pot with a lid. Take the pot off the burner and add the tea bags. Steep, covered, about five minutes. Remove tea bags and discard. Return pot to burner and bring to a light simmer. Stir in sugar until dissolved and immediately remove from heat. Add pinch of baking soda to tea base and stir. Add water/ice and stir. Pour into a sturdy container (never pour hot liquids into untempered glass). Refrigerate. Serve chilled over ice with garnish (see rule 5 above).