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You'll need baking soda.

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Credit: Photographer Victor Protasio, Food Stylist Margaret Dickey, Prop Stylist Christine Keely

Recipe Summary

active:
5 mins
total:
50 mins
Servings:
6
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For such a simple drink, everything from the type of tea, down to the ice used in this three-ingredient staple matters. Sweet tea may be ubiquitous in stores, fast-food menus, and restaurants, but nothing tastes as good as the fresh brewed stuff. As one of our editors, Sheri Castle, says, "You can pick out the restaurants that run their brew through the coffee maker instead of a dedicated iced tea machine. It's like being served a glass with someone else's lipstick still on the rim."

And sure, you probably know how to make sweet tea already, but this guide is filled with tips and tricks for making your sweet tea even better. 

What Is Sweet Tea? 

Southern-style sweet tea is freshly brewed black tea that's sweetened with sugar while hot, chilled until cold, and served over ice. Change any of those variables and while you might have a nice drink, it's just not classic Southern sweet tea. 

Each of the three key components in Southern sweet tea matter greatly. Here's a breakdown of what you should use when you're ready to brew. 

an illustrated image of a box of Luizianne tea
Credit: KENDYLL HILLEGAS/SOUTHERN LIVING

Tea 
Make sure to use black tea. Iced green tea is delicious, but an entirely different drink. The black tea you choose should be a variety that is grown or blended for iced drinks, usually labeled orange pekoe. The tea bags used should also be fresh and fragrant. It's best to store them in an airtight container to prevent the tea losing its aroma. 

an illustration of a bag of domino sugar
Credit: KENDYLL HILLEGAS/SOUTHERN LIVING

Sugar 
Southern-style sweet tea relies on granulated cane sugar, which can be adjusted to taste. Granulated sugar, white or unbleached, works better than water-based simple syrups, which dilute the brew.

Water 
Don't use just any old water for sweet tea; filtered or spring water eliminates any odd flavors in treated tap water.  Distilled water, however, is too bland and can make it taste flat. Remember, not all bottled water is spring water; some brands are just treated city water from another town. The same goes for the ice; use only fresh ice as it melts and becomes part of the drink, too. 

Arm & Hammer Baking Soda
Credit: KENDYLL HILLEGAS/SOUTHERN LIVING

Baking Soda
We know the feathers we will ruffle with this ingredient, but Southern sweet tea needs baking soda. This kitchen staple is the secret to perfectly clear, smooth sweet tea. And you need so little you don't have to worry about it affecting the taste of the perfect glass of sweet tea.

The Four-Step Tea-Making Process

For a better brew, make sure you are doing these four steps correctly:

Boiling 
Tea (both hot and iced) tastes best when made with water that has been brought to a rolling boil (212°F) in a saucepan or kettle on the stovetop. Microwave ovens do not heat up water as evenly, which affects the tea's flavor.

Steeping
Pour boiling water over the tea bags instead of adding them to the hot water. Let them steep until the liquid is strong, dark, and deeply flavored. The rule in many households is that a pitcher of tea should be so dark that you cannot read the newspaper through it.

Sweetening 
Dissolve the sugar in the warm tea as soon as the bags come out. If sugar is added before then, it will interfere with the steeping.

Cooling 
Steeping the tea in a smaller amount of boiling water makes a double-strength brew. Then add cool water, which begins the chilling process required before refrigeration. Diluting the tea with ice would cool it down more quickly, but it wouldn't taste nearly as good.

Why Is Sweet Tea Southern? 

It turns out sweet tea is a more recent Southern tradition than you might think. The first known recipe for iced tea (made with green tea) can be traced back to Housekeeping in Old Virginia, an 1878 cookbook by Marion Cabell Tyree, but this recipe doesn't match what we know as sweet tea today. 

During Prohibition tea drinking started to become more popular. Tea was often served with alcohol before the law went into effect, and after the ban the beautiful crystal glasses formerly used for cocktails were filled with sweet tea. 

Today's sweet tea didn't really become a household staple until refrigeration and inexpensive imported black tea, sugar, and ice became commonplace after WWII. Before long, households often had special pitchers and tall glasses just for this drink, and silverware drawers included long-handled iced tea spoons. 

Loyalty to this beverage remains strong in many Southern restaurants, as well. Kahlil Arnold of Arnold's Country Kitchen, a legendary meat 'n' three in Nashville, says they sell upwards of 35 gallons of sweet tea a day. 

Commonly Asked Questions

Even seasoned tea makers can learn a little from these questions.

Why do you put baking soda in sweet tea?

It might sound strange, but a pinch of baking soda is the secret sweet tea ingredient that combats bitterness and makes crystal clear tea every time.

How long should tea steep for iced tea?

If following our recipe, no more than 15 minutes. Too much time steeping draws more of the tannins out of the tea, which can make it taste bitter. 

How do I serve sweet tea?  

Sweet tea is served chilled over ice. Garnishes, such as citrus slices or mint sprigs, are optional and can be added to the pitcher or glass at serving time. It can also be spiked, for a grown-up refreshment. 

How long does sweet last? 

Sweet tea tastes best freshly brewed, no more than a day old, two tops, so make sure to serve it up as soon as it's chilled.

Ingredients

Ingredient Checklist

Directions

Instructions Checklist
  • Place tea bags and baking soda in a large glass jar or pitcher.  

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  • Bring 4 cups of the water to a rolling boil in a saucepan over high; immediately pour over tea bags, making sure bags are submerged. Steep for 15 minutes. Remove bags and gently squeeze; discard bags.  

  • Stir in sugar until dissolved. Stir in remaining 2 cups water.  

  • Refrigerate, uncovered, until chilled, about 30 minutes. Serve over ice. Store covered in refrigerator up to 2 days. 

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