sweet sweet tea
December 12, 2007 8:59 PM   Subscribe

I just took a trip to Atlanta and became addicted to sweet tea. I googled for recipes and noticed a few variations in the way it's prepared (besides amount of tea bags, sugar, water). That is, some recipes call for boiling the tea, then adding the sugar, then adding *room temperature* water. Some call for adding boiling water to tea, steeping, adding the sugar, then adding *cold* water. I think one called for adding the boiling water to tea, adding the sugar, then adding *room temperature water*. etc. etc. What I'm curious about is how do the differences affect the final taste?

That is, why boiling the tea vs adding boiling water to tea? Why room temperature water vs cold water? And besides the scientific explanations, any tips on how to make the perfect sweet tea would be greatly appreciated!

(I hope I'm not going overboard here, but it also occurred to me: people in other regions (e.g. Southern CA) like iced teas and add sweetener. So why not just serve sweet tea, especially since sweetener doesn't dissolve worth a damn?)
posted by edjusted to Food & Drink (32 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Boiling water in the sugar to make a simple syrup, then add that to your tea. Personally, I think boiling the tea makes it bitter, but others obviously disagree. However, boiling water for the sugar is imperative, because that dissolves it completely and forms the simple syrup which infuses the whole tea with sweetness. As for why Yankees don't do the sensible thing and serve Sweet Tea instead of dumping sugar into a glass, well, bless their hearts. They just don't know any better.
posted by headspace at 9:04 PM on December 12, 2007 [3 favorites]

A pinch of baking soda is part of the secret recipe.

Also, see here.
posted by Exchequer at 9:08 PM on December 12, 2007 [2 favorites]

Plenty of people outside the South brew tea hot and add sugar to it before it cools. No one I know does it any other way, except when using specific cold brew bags, and this is NYC.
posted by cmgonzalez at 9:09 PM on December 12, 2007

I was basically raised on sweet tea. There's not really a secret to it. Here's how my mom has always done it and therefore how I have learned to do it:

Boil the tea bags, pour the hot tea into a pitcher that already has sugar in it, then add cold water over the top of the tea. Bingo-bango, that's it. This "recipe," if served immediately with ice, gives a satisfying blend of hot and cold that still brings me fond memories to this day.

There's a local restaurant I've been going to lately that only serves unsweetened tea, but they have liquid sweetener on the table to sweeten it. This is a different approach to me, but it makes for a fine sweet tea taste.
posted by joshrholloway at 9:14 PM on December 12, 2007

Here in Canada, you're always served sweetened iced tea. It was a shock the first time I went to the US and had cold tea.
Headspace: do you mean that you're supposed to put sugar into the tea? I thought you drank it without sweetener in the US.
posted by acoutu at 9:15 PM on December 12, 2007

Quick sweet tea:

Put coffee filter in coffee maker.

Put tea bags over filter, or loose tea if you're a FANCY PANTS.

Pour a great deal of sugar over the tea bags.

Put water into the reservoir of the coffee maker.

Turn on coffee maker.

HOORAY IT IS SWEET TEA. Dilute with water as required.
posted by InnocentBystander at 9:21 PM on December 12, 2007 [4 favorites]

I'm a southerner who drinks far too much sweet tea.

Boiling the bags extracts bitter compounds from the leaves. Some actually prefer this. You'll need to experiment. I use the equivalent of four small Lipton's bags, depending on what tea I'm brewing. I like it strong.

Adding ice to a hot pitcher will cloud the tea. Don't ask me why, I don't know. I usually brew the teabags over and over again until I've got a full pitcher (each time adding successively weaker tea).

I used to dump one cup of sugar into the bottom of the pitcher and pour the hot tea over that. Then I cut it back to 1/2 cup. Now I just keep simple syrup on-hand. Never, ever, ever add solid sugar to cold tea. You'll end up with tea that's gritty and unsweet at first, and cloying at the end of the glass. Northerners are silly.
posted by TheNewWazoo at 9:24 PM on December 12, 2007

Somewhat related: The Lady Tasting Tea: How Statistics Revolutionized Science in the Twentieth Century.

Haven't read it yet.
posted by sebastienbailard at 9:25 PM on December 12, 2007

Response by poster: headspace: yeah, I know the sugar needs to dissolve. I was wondering about the other part of it.

Exchequer: thanks, I did see the baking soda in a few recipes, but I hadn't seen that particular recipe. But that's a good example...
this says pour the boiling water over the tea bags, steep, add cold water, *then* sweeten

while this one says to put the tea and the water in a pot, bring to a boil (vs pouring boiling water over tea bags), steep, dissolve sugar, add cold water.

this says to put the tea bags *into* the boiling water, steep, etc, and dispenses with adding *cold* water (plus it says to squeeze the tea bags, which seems to be a no-no with other sites)

and good ol' Alton Brown says to steep the tea in hot water, then specifically to add room temperature water.

So what I'm curious about is the technical aspect of adding cold vs room termperature vs not adding additional water. e.g. does the cold water...stop the brewing process? change the molecular structure of the tea to make it taste different? or maybe the room temperature water "smooths" out the chemical reactions so the tea isn't "shocked"? (I'm making all this up btw, just to give examples) etc.

Or does it not matter at all?
posted by edjusted at 9:33 PM on December 12, 2007

The standard operating procedure for tea in my parent's house was always make a small amount of super-concentrated, hot tea, dissolve sugar, then add cold water to cut the concentration of the tea and cool it off. If you make normal strength tea and serve it hot it'll dissolve all your ice and get watery--I'm betting the "add cool water" thing is just to cut down on this, and allow for immediate serving.
posted by Benjy at 9:37 PM on December 12, 2007

Response by poster: TheNewWazoo: Boiling the bags extracts bitter compounds from the leaves. AH! Yes, this is the kind of info I'm looking for. So to paraphrase, to make it less bitter, add water to the tea bags instead of boiling the tea bags, yes?

sebastienbailard: Thanks. The lady of the title's claim that she could detect a difference between milk-into-tea vs. tea-into-milk infusions... sounds darn interesting.

Dasein: What I mean is the difference between having water and tea bags in a pot, then bringing the whole thing to a boil ("boiling the tea") vs boiling just the water, having the tea bags in a container, and pouring boiling water into the container. It's a subtle difference and part of what I'm asking is what difference that makes, if any.

Phew...making I'm making this much too complicated. Hahaha
posted by edjusted at 9:39 PM on December 12, 2007

When I make sweet tea, I heat the water with 6-8 bags in just until I can see steam, then pour it over a cup or so of sugar in a pitcher, and stir it up -- essentially making the simple syrup. Once all the sugar is dissolved I add in cool water and pop it in the fridge.

And this is why my people have the diabeetus.
posted by sugarfish at 9:40 PM on December 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

If you're really interested in how all these different preparations affect the taste, why not experiment yourself? Try them all and see which one you like best. You're only going to learn so much from text descriptions.
posted by occhiblu at 9:42 PM on December 12, 2007

Response by poster: occhiblu: I plan on doing that. But even if my taste buds don't notice a difference, I'm still intellectually curious if there is/should be a difference. You know what I mean?
posted by edjusted at 9:44 PM on December 12, 2007

I have this posted somewhere but don't mind going back over it...

Take six or eight teabags, put in saucepan with cold water. Put on burner.

Turn burner on and watch pot. The minute you start to see small bubbles come up the side of the pot, or the faintest hint of steam off the water, TURN OFF THE HEAT.


Let it steep till the water is dark. Meanwhile, find your container and put approximately a cup of sugar in it, more or less to taste. When tea is steeped pour tea into container, on top of sugar, and stir till dissolved. Then fill up the container with cold water.

Put container in fridge till fully chilled.

THAT is authentic Southern iced tea. Enjoy!
posted by konolia at 10:05 PM on December 12, 2007 [3 favorites]

edjusted: Yes, exactly. The difference is bringing the teabags to the water, or bringing the water to the teabags.

Imagine you're in a room, one side of which is populated by a pot of boiling water ('cause us Southerners don't use kettles), and the other side populated by some teabags. If you bring the water to the teabags, it will have stopped boiling by the time you arrive, and the teabags will never have been boiled. If, on the other hand, you bring the teabags to the water, it'll still be all aboil, and you'll get slightly more bitter tea.

Honestly, you'll get a lot more interesting results by varying the tea itself than the steeping method. Next time you're in Atlanta, hit up Your Dekalb Farmer's Market and just buy one tub of each kind of loose tea. :)
posted by TheNewWazoo at 10:30 PM on December 12, 2007

People who make industrial quantities of the stuff (Southern restaurants, where the refills are free, unlike Cokes), sweeten it with white Karo syrup. There's a touch of vanilla in white Karo syrup, that smooths the flavor of even the cheapest tea, and corn syrup, like white Karo, is cheaper, in the U.S., than sugar, due to the politics of sugar.
posted by paulsc at 10:43 PM on December 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

I boil up about 1.75 quarts of water, then I pour it into a pitcher with liberal amounts of sugar. I stir vigorously, then add the tea bags to steep for 20 minutes. Once done, I pull the bags out and add .25 quarts of cooler water or ice to the 2 quart line.

It's how my Mom taught me to do it, and I like it.
posted by angeline at 1:42 AM on December 13, 2007

Most southern homes will be adding tap water to the tea, which will be whatever temperature the water leaves the tap.

(For a nice flavor, add a bag of peppermint herbal tea in with the regular tea. Yum!)
posted by happyturtle at 1:46 AM on December 13, 2007

Boil water in a little pan, add the teabags to pan, let them sit about 5-10 minutes. Add sugar to pitcher. Remove teabags from pan, dump hot tea into pitcher, stir well until sugar's dissolved. Use pan to fill pitcher with cold water. You can have some immediately if you add a lot of ice to your glass. The rest should be chilled for later.

You can adjust the tea type, number of teabags, brew time, and sugar quantity. Everything is adjustable to your happiness. I've found that if I leave the teabags soaking for too long, it'll end up bitter or overly strong. It's the only reason I've ever tossed a batch. If it's too sweet or too strong, I ice it more or water it down more. If it's not sweet enough, it's tolerable so I just make do. Besides, less sugar is healthier, so maybe I'll get used to it.

I'm in Atlanta and I feel blasphemous when I say this, but I personally love those Bigelow French Vanilla and Vanilla Caramel teas from the grocery store. The Vanilla Chai is pretty good, too. It's like drinking spice cake. 7 of those bags make a great tea and with less sugar.
posted by ick at 4:30 AM on December 13, 2007

Like TheNewWazoo said, I move the pan of boiling water to a different stove eye. Then, with it removed from heat, it's no longer boiling, and I add the teabgs with the strings trailing outside of pan (if they have strings). I would never boil a teabag. They're so flimsy that you'd have more residue and tea leaf remnants in your final product. Blech.
posted by ick at 4:39 AM on December 13, 2007

We have a big glass jar, probably like a gallon or so in size, toss in tea bags, fill with cold tap water, set out on back porch to brew in the sun. Sometime later when it looks right, fetch it off the porch, pour in a bunch of sugar, stir, take a sip, add more sugar, stir, take another sip. The end result should be a little oversweet, but you fill up a glass about 3/4 full with ice, fill glass with tea (the melting ice will cut the sweetness down), enjoy!

We've always done tea like that and no one ever bothered to measure so I couldn't tell you how much sugar there was or how many bags. I'm not sure what effect the sun (slow brewing??) has on the whole concoction, but tastes good to me.
posted by SoulOnIce at 4:40 AM on December 13, 2007

The previous post konolia mentioned is probably this Metafilter post: House wine of the South
posted by ick at 4:43 AM on December 13, 2007

The three rules of sweet tea

1) a pinch of baking soda
2) don't boil the tea bags
3) use Luzianne Tea bags
posted by dirtdirt at 5:45 AM on December 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

People love the sweet tea that I make, but I don't think any of them is a tea connoisseur. With that disclaimer, here's how I make it:

About two quarts of water put on the stove on high. This sits for nine minutes. On our stove, that heats the water to just below boiling.

Five Tetley tea bags to into the water, which is taken off the heat. Tetley only; I've tried others, but keep coming back to Tetley. The tea bags sit in this hot water for around a half an hour.

After that, 1c of sugar goes into the tea, which is stirred until the sugar dissolves. Doesn't take long; the tea is still plenty hot.

The tea is transferred to a gallon milk jug, which then gets filled the rest of the way with cold water.
posted by eafarris at 6:03 AM on December 13, 2007

Georgia Girl here,

This is the easy tea I made for the family everynight since I was about 6.

Fill a smallish pot with water and set to boil. As soon as it starts boiling, throw in the tea bag and take it off the heat. Let sit for a minute of so.

Grab your pitcher and throw in approximately 1 1/2 coffee cups of sugar, pour in the hot water, turn on the faucet and fill to almost to the top with room temperature water, stir well. We used Lipton Family Size for Iced Tea.
posted by stormygrey at 6:22 AM on December 13, 2007

Plenty of good advice above, so I'll just add a little tip. My daughter loves mint in her tea, but I don't, plus she likes hers sweeter. So I make a simple syrup with a handful of mint leaves added, and store that in the refrigerator. That way, we both get what we want!
I thought you drank it without sweetener in the US.
Never been below the Mason-Dixon line, I assume?
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:11 AM on December 13, 2007

Regarding your last statement/question. I grew up in Alabama (mostly) and after you request iced tea at restaurants they inquire whether or not you want sweet or unsweet ice tea. Then I moved to Texas and most places only serve the unsweet version.

Sweet iced tea used to be a staple in our fridge, along with milk and juice... Ah thank goodness I've given it up (mostly).

I agree with a lot of the responses here; boil water, add tea bags, turn off heat, add to pitcher (which is already 1.5 cups sugar full), stir, add cool water and maybe ice cubes.
posted by collocation at 7:13 AM on December 13, 2007

In Malaysia, if you want really sweet milk tea (especially if you're making teh tarik) , you use condensed milk.
posted by divabat at 7:19 AM on December 13, 2007

The biggest reason some people boil the bags and some don't is that's how they learned - Mom/Grandma/Pawpaw/whoever did it that way, and that's the way it's done. Some people like having the extra bitterness that boiling brings as a counterpoint to the sweet, some folks like cane syrup in a glass. Also, different teas react differently to a boil (Lipton vs Luzianne, for instance). My grandma's recipe has pretty much always been to put half a dozen small Lipton bags (or 2-3 large) into a saucepan of watter, and let it simmer until it's pretty dark. Add the sugar to the hot steep, let it cool slightly, and add cool water to cut, but still keep it on the strong side. When you pour it over ice, the melting cubes will cut it the last little bit, and you won't end up with the last half-glass all watery.
posted by pupdog at 9:48 AM on December 13, 2007

If you're lazy like me, go to Wally World and buy some of that Red Diamond ready made sweet tea in the refridgerated section. It tastes just the same as homemade. If you're afraid of the diabeetus get the kind with Splenda instead of sugar.
posted by tamitang at 7:34 PM on December 13, 2007

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