Sun tea conjures up the charming memories of my grandmother's tea pitcher on my grandparent's screened-in porch. As kids we drank it over ice on the front steps, swatting away mosquitoes. My mother used to brew an unsweetened version of it on our tiny apartment balconies when I was a teenager. And then iced tea seemed to disappear from my life entirely until I moved to the South and learned how a proper Southerner makes boiled iced tea for surviving sweltering Southern summers.
I've missed the charm of the tea pitcher brewing in the window and wondered, Where has all the sun tea gone? It turns out that many folks have been scared away from brewing sun tea because of the rumored risk of bacteria in the tea. Sun-brewed tea may be a thing of the past, but we can take the principles of sun tea and enjoy a delightfully slow-brewed cup of tea when it gets hot in the summer.
Is It Safe to Brew and Drink Sun Tea?
The short answer is "no." It is not safe to brew and drink sun tea: Water warmed by the sun isn't hot enough to kill any bacteria that may be living on the tea bags or even in your pitcher. Sun-brewing also puts that bacteria in what is called the "time-temperature danger zone." This is culinary jargon for temperatures between 40°F and 140°F, which, when held for longer than two hours, allows bacteria to breed.
While the true risk of brewing and drinking sun tea is relatively low, sun-brewed tea won't actually yield the best-tasting cold iced tea at home, but there's an easy solution to capture the taste and romance sun tea conjures.
Get the Facts: Is It Safe To Brew and Drink Sun Tea?
Opt for Cold Infusion Instead of Sun Steeping
Use cold filtered water and infuse the tea at room temperature instead of brewing the tea in the sun. Think of this sun tea as the tea-lover's version of cold brewed coffee. Instead of steeping the tea in hot water for a short period of time for a hot brew that has to be chilled, we can use cold brew techniques to slowly infuse the tea into the water over time.
The benefits are many — better-tasting tea, a significantly lower risk of bacteria growth, as well as a tea that is ready for drinking over ice as soon as it's done brewing (no chill time required). You can also easily double the batch for a crowd, with no extra effort.
Black Tea Is Best
Black tea is synonymous with iced tea. If you can find tea bags labeled as "blended for ice tea," pick them up. (Luzianne and Lipton both make versions.) Here's another great benefit cold brewing for tea: Because the water temperature is so low, there's little risk of over-steeping the tea. This makes makes it possible to brew more delicate teas (green and oolong come to mind), as well as higher-quality loose-leaf teas into iced tea. With the pitcher at room temperature and within eye-line, you can easily check the brew for doneness by color.
Get the Facts: Is Loose-Leaf Tea Really Better than Tea Bags?
How to Sweeten
Because this tea isn't heated for steeping, it is best to use a liquid sweetener for adding sweetness after infusing. Simple syrup is my sweetener of choice, but honey and agave are other easy options for sweetening. Add the sweetener of your choice after removing the tea bags and just before serving. Store finished tea in the fridge for up to one week.
Get the Recipe: DIY Simple Syrup
How To Make Sun Tea
Makes 1 quart
What You Need
cold-brew black tea bags
cold filtered water
Liquid sweetener of your choice - simple syrup, honey, or agave
quart jar or pitcher, preferably with a cover
Put the tea in the water: Combine the water and tea bags in a 1-quart pitcher or jar. Cover.
Infuse: Let the tea steep at room temperature to your desired strength, 2 to 3 hours.
Strain and sweeten: Remove the tea bags (a clean slotted spoon is great for this). Add any sweetener you maybe using and serve or store in the fridge.
Storage: Store finished tea in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.