Before you Southerners read this and start thinking, "Are you kidding me? Who doesn't know how to make sweet tea?" — hear me out. I am Florida-born and Georgia-raised, but when I moved to California, one of the first things I noticed was that no one drinks sweet tea out here! I always keep a pitcher ready in my fridge, and my friends inevitably ask me, "How do you make this?"
Today you're going to find out how. Whether you've never heard of sweet tea or have only tried the bottled version, this is a recipe you're going to want to make this summer. Southerners, chime in here with your best advice!
What's the History of Sweet Tea?
First, a little history on sweet tea. In 1795, the first tea plantations in the United States arrived in South Carolina. Today, there are still a few left in the state. The first sweet tea recipe has been traced back to the cookbook Housekeeping in Old Virginia, by Marion Cabell Tyree, and was published in 1879. It called for green tea, which was more commonly drunk as iced tea at the time, until World War II when green tea importation was cut off and Americans switched to black tea imported from India.
Sweet tea is so ingrained in Southern culture that in 2003, as part of an April Fool's joke, the Georgia Legislature introduced a bill that would make it a misdemeanor for restaurants not to offer sweet tea. In the movie Steel Magnolias, Dolly Parton proclaimed that sweet tea was "the house wine of the South." One of my favorite simple pleasures is to sit on the back porch on a velvety Georgia night, sipping sweet tea, and eating a plate of fried green tomatoes while watching fireflies.
What Is Sweet Tea?
Sweet tea is more than just adding a spoonful of sugar to a glass of iced tea. First off, it's usually made in large batches and kept chilled in the fridge, ready for an afternoon visitor or an easy cool-down on a hot summer day.
Most recipes call for a relatively quick steep, anywhere from a few swishes of the tea bags through the hot water to a full five-minute dunk, though some Southerners like a nice long steep to make a stronger sweet tea. Mix the sugar into the hot tea so it dissolves completely — I like the relatively mild sweetness of a cup of sugar in a gallon of tea, but you could certainly add more (or less) to suit your own personal taste. (We Southerners do have a sweet tooth! Coca-Cola, pecan pie, and sweet tea ... Our love of sugar keeps dentists in business.)
Chill your sweet tea thoroughly before drinking it. I find the flavor actually changes and improves the more chilled the tea gets. Pour it over ice, and drink it straight, or add a sprig of mint or drop in a few lemon wedges. For a grown-up, after-work version, add a shot of bourbon or other favorite liquor.
Making Your Own Sweet Tea
The best sweet tea is the one in the pitcher in your fridge. If you've never made sweet tea before, start with this recipe and then adjust it to taste. Steep the tea for longer, add more or less sugar, squeeze a few lemons into the pitcher — you like your sweet tea the way you like it, and that's just fine.
Southerners and Southerners-at-heart, I'd love to hear about your "house recipe" for sweet tea and what advice you have for making the best version. Please share your stories in the comments!
Bring 4 cups of water to a boil. Remove from heat.
How To Make Sweet Tea
Makes 1 gallon
What You Need
3 family-sized black tea bags (or 12 individual tea bags), like Lipton or Luzianne
4 cups water, plus more to fill the pitcher
1 cup sugar
Mint or lemon slices, optional to serve
Small sauce pan
Large 1-gallon pitcher, or multiple smaller pitchers
Bring 4 cups of water to a boil. Remove from heat.
Steep the tea for 5 minutes. Dunk the tea bags a few times in the water to fully hydrate, then leave submerged with the strings hanging over the side of the pot. After 5 minutes, remove the bags and discard.
Add the sugar to the tea. Stir until the sugar is completely dissolved.
Pour the tea base into the pitcher. If using multiple pitchers, divide the tea evenly between them.
Top off the pitchers with water. Add another 3 quarts of water to make a gallon of sweet tea.
Refrigerate until very cold. Chill for at least 4 hours or, ideally, overnight.
Serve over ice. Add a sprig of mint or a slice of lemon, if desired! The sweet tea will keep refrigerated for about a week.
Stronger sweet tea: For stronger tea, add the tea and the sugar at the same time, stir to dissolve the sugar, and then let the tea steep for up to 3 hours. Remove the tea bags and continue with the recipe.
Sweeter (or not-so-sweet) sweet tea: As it is, this makes a fairly mild, lightly sweetened tea; if you'd prefer a sweeter tea, stir in extra sugar, 1/4 cup at a time, to the full 1-gallon batch just before refrigerating. Stir until dissolved, then refrigerate. You can also add less sugar, if you prefer.
Arnold Palmers (aka Swamp Water): Mix equal parts lemonade and sweet tea.
Spiked sweet tea: Add a shot of your favorite liquor to the glass, then pour the sweet tea over top. (Bourbon is a favorite — check out our recipe for Sparkling Sweet Tea Cocktail!)
This post has been updated — first published August 2009.
(Image credits: Emma Christensen)