When you want a refreshing beverage on a hot day, something sweet and smooth and icy cold, it’s hard to go wrong with a glass of Southern-style sweet tea.
What makes sweet tea uniquely Southern?
In the early 1800’s, a common drink called “tea punch”, typically made with green tea and served cold, was prevalent all over the United States and the recipes have names both royal (Regent’s Punch, named for King George IV) and patriotic (Chatham Artillery Punch, named after a military outfit in Georgia). If the thought of boozy tea punches got your interest piqued in mixing, Bartend Like a Madman will teach you the basics of many of the standard traditional drinks, including the New Orleans Sazerac. The Mint Julep, synonymous with Kentucky and bourbon, is a relative of these boozy blends (minus the tea).
According to this article in the Charleston City Paper (as in Charleston, South Carolina), the first recorded mention of sweet iced tea (without liquor) is from 1860 in a Boston newspaper, instructing readers to “Sweeten the hot tea to suit your taste; then pour it, spoonful by spoonful, into a tumbler filled with ice”.
Not quite sweet tea as we know it today, but it does fly in the face of the old concept that Yankees don’t like their tea sweet.
But when did it take root as a uniquely Southern thing? There are a lot of things that have led up to it being the symbol of Southern hospitality. The first tea plantation in the United States was established in South Carolina. Ice and refrigeration became common throughout the South in the 1930’s and ice was a kind of luxury item for homes before then, so a pitcher of ice cold sweet tea would have been a treat for folks and their guests, for sure. Despite the details, sweet tea is a symbol of homey Southern hospitality and everyone has their own way of making it.
Pretty much every recipe for sweet tea calls for strong tea (steeped extra long) and a lot of sugar.
These are the basics you need for some tasty Southern Sweet Tea.
- tea bags (2-3 “family size” bags or 10-15 single serve)
- 3-4 cups of water to brew the tea in
- 2 cups of sugar (maybe more, maybe less depending on taste)
Boil the water. Once it boils, remove the water from the stove and then place the bags in to steep. Let them set in the later for 10-15 minutes and then take the bags out. Make sure you don’t steep your tea too long or throw the bags into the pot to boil with the water. That will make the tea bitter and definitely not tasty.
After you’ve let it steep for the recommended time (or however long you want), remove the bags and put in the sugar. Maybe start with a cup and half and taste it to see if that’s good enough. If you like it sweeter, add some till it tastes the way you like. There are some recipes that have even higher amounts of sugar than the listed 2 cups! Once that sugar has been mixed in and dissolved, add some cold water until you have a pitcher full (about a gallon) and refrigerate. Have lots of ice on hand for serving!
Pretty much every recipe revolves around those elements. What does differ between them are recommendations of what brand of tea and amount of sugar added. Luzianne and Lipton are typical, but Luzianne is the brand of choice for many because they have the family size bags made just for brewing large amounts of iced tea and Lipton is said to be bitter when steeped for too long.
If bitterness is a problem, there is a “secret” ingredient that folks have been adding to their iced tea as it steeps to smooth out the tannins in the tea that make it bitter. What is that, you ask, as well you may? Baking soda. Just a pinch (about a ¼ teaspoon) added when you put the tea bags in the boiled water will have that smoothing effect without changing the taste.
Now that I’ve given you the lowdown on sweet tea, maybe you’d like to look into expanding your cooking repertoire to include dishes that are uniquely Southern to go with that cold pitcher of tea now in your fridge?
How does having a catfish po’ boy, shrimp etoufee, and dirty rice to along with that tea sound? This Southern Cooking course, taught by Louisiana native Brent Stevenson, teaches those recipes and a few more, if you’d like to get that whole Southern experience down.
Or maybe some jambalaya? Cook Like a Man, taught with tongue firmly in cheek by L’Academie de Cuisine graduate Andrew White, will have you chopping, dicing and deglazing your way to Southern hospitality perfection.
A tall glass of cold sweet tea sounds good about now.