Even though I lived in Mississippi for the first portion of my childhood (and visited nearly every year after we moved to California), I did not grow up drinking sweet tea. My mum never cared for sugar — she drank water and, to a lesser extent, Diet Coke — and my grandmother sweetened her pitchers of tea with tiny — one-grain! — dot of saccharin, which I have yet to see anywhere other than her kitchen.
But sometimes I get a hankering for real sweet tea, so I make some. I’m an adult, after all, and being “grown” means I can indulge whenever I wish. Those cravings are never so strong that I want a whole pitcher of sweet tea — a glass is plenty — but making a single glass isn’t as easy as adding sugar to unsweetened iced tea. There are best practices one should observe, so let’s stroll through the process, step-by-step.
Use not-quite-boiling water
Most black tea — the tea you should use to make sweet tea — is best brewed above 90C and below 100C (boiling). There are some fancy black teas that taste better when brewed at lower temperatures, but sweet tea is not made with fancy tea. (Get the cheap stuff — you’re going to be obscuring any delicate, nuanced flavours with lots of sugar, anyway.)
If you have an electric kettle with precise temperature control, use that. For everyone else: Bring some water to a boil, then take it off the heat and let it cool for about 10 seconds. If you’re making a single glass of tea — and I mean at least a pint-glass worth — you’ll need one cup of this very hot water.
Add tea bags, not time
The longer you brew your tea, the more bitter it will taste. If you want a more strongly flavored brew, resist the urge to let the tea bags sit in the hot water for a super long time, and add more tea bags instead. This will give your sweet tea more tea flavour without the astringency that comes from over-extraction. I like the flavour of tea more than the flavour of sugar (at least in a beverage situation), so I usually add two tea bags to one cup of just boiling water, and let it steep for 4-5 minutes.
Always add sugar before ice
Sugar does not dissolve in cold water, at least not at a rate that’s helpful to sweet tea drinkers. To prevent it from lingering, add 1-2 tablespoons of sugar to hot tea. (Some sweet tea fiends may prefer three whole tablespoons, and I am not here to judge.)
Cool, don’t shock
Some black teas do not like being cooled too rapidly, and adding a lot of ice all at once can cause your tea to turn cloudy. To prevent that, combine your hot, sweetened tea concentrate with an equal amount of room-temperature water, stir that around until it’s no longer hot, then add lots of ice.
To make a single glass on sweet tea, you will need:
- 2 cups of water, divided
- 1-2 cheap black tea bags
- 1-3 tablespoons of white sugar
- A very big glass
Bring one cup of water to a boil. Once it is boiling, remove it from the heat, pour it out of the kettle, or — if you’re a dirtbag like me — take it out of the microwave. Let it cool for about 10 seconds, then add your tea bags and let them steep for four minutes.
Remove the tea bags, add your preferred amount of sugar, and stir to dissolve. Pour a cup of room-temperature water to a large tea glass, add your hot, sweetened tea concentrate, and stir to cool. Once the water is no longer hot, add as much ice as the glass can hold. Sip on a porch, balcony, or near your best window.