A classic Southern Sweet Tea recipe is an easy and refreshing summertime treat! Every home cook has her own favorite version, and this post includes all of the little tips and tricks to make a perfect pitcher every single time.
While the hot and humid days of summer are synonymous with popsicles, lemonade, and other cool indulgences, there's nothing quite like a classic Southern Sweet Tea recipe. With a squeeze of lemon and a sprig of fresh mint, it's smooth, crisp, refreshing and...sweet!
What's Sweet Tea?
If you're from the South, then you probably wonder why we even need a "recipe" for this quintessential summer drink! But guess what? Not everyone knows what sweet tea is, much less how to make the perfect glass at home. While it may be a staple in my fridge during the warm-weather months, I've never actually shared the process here.
If you're unfamiliar with this treat, let me explain: Sweet Tea isn't just the process of stirring a spoonful of sugar into a cold glass of tea. Instead, the popular Southern drink is typically made by adding sugar or simple syrup to a quick-brewed black tea while the tea is still hot. Sweet tea is always served ice-cold, and is sometimes flavored with lemon, mint, peach or raspberry.
The History of Sweet Tea:
I love that sweet tea originated here in Virginia! In fact, the oldest known recipe for sweet iced tea was published in 1879 in a cookbook called Housekeeping in Old Virginia by a Virginian named Marion Cabell Tyree. The original recipe called for green tea, which was commonly used for sweet tea in those days. However, when our green tea sources (from Japan) were cut off during World War II, we shifted over to using black tea instead. At one point, sweet tea was enjoyed as an alcoholic punch with flavorings of mint and cream (similar to a mint julep).
While we can now make homemade sweet tea quickly and inexpensively, it was originally seen as a luxury item due to the expensive nature of tea, ice, and sugar. A good homemade sweet tea recipe is still considered "priceless" today, and I'm so excited to share my favorite version with you!
Tips for the Best Sweet Tea Recipe:
- The Best Tea for Sweet Tea: Use black tea bags that are specifically blended for iced tea. I always use Lipton (because that's what I grew up with), but Luzianne sweet tea is another classic option. The packaging will tell you if it's intended for iced tea. Southern sweet tea is designed to be served over ice.
- Don't Add Tea Bags to Boiling Water: You want to bring the water barely to a boil, remove it from the heat, and then add the tea bags to the hot (but not boiling) water. Placing the tea bags in boiling water can "burn" the tea and give the drink a bitter taste.
- Don't Steep Too Long: Southern sweet tea uses a quick-steeping method. That means that you want to leave the tea bags in the hot water for about 4-5 minutes (maybe slightly more for a stronger flavor), but not much more than 10-15 minutes at most. Steeping tea for too long can give the drink a bitter taste.
- Add Baking Soda: It might sound weird, but the best sweet tea includes a little bit of baking soda to neutralize the tannins in the tea, prevent a "cloudy" look, and give the tea a smoother taste.
- Add the Sugar While the Tea is Hot: Don't wait to stir the sugar into the tea when the tea has already cooled. Instead, vigorously whisk or stir the sugar into the hot liquid so that the sugar completely dissolves (and doesn't sink to the bottom). If you do it this way, you don't need to bother with making a simple syrup on the stovetop.
How to Make a Sweet Tea Recipe from Scratch:
Skip the drive-thru at Chik-Fil-A or McDonald's, because it's easy to make Sweet Tea from scratch with just a couple of basic ingredients. The homemade version is affordable, you can keep it in your refrigerator to enjoy throughout the week, and you can adjust the sugar to suit your taste preferences.
Ingredients for Southern Sweet Tea Recipe:
- Black tea bags
- Baking soda
- Granulated sugar
Step 1: Steep Tea
Bring 4 cups of water to a boil, remove the water from the heat, and add the tea bags and baking soda. Steep the tea for 4-5 minutes.
Step 2: Add Sugar
Whisk the sugar into the hot tea.
Step 3: Add Water
Pour the tea base into a gallon-size pitcher. Add 3 more quarts of water to the pitcher, then stir to combine.
Step 4: Chill
Refrigerate the tea for at least 4 hours, or overnight. Then pour over ice and enjoy!
How to store Sweet Tea:
Always refrigerate sweet iced tea. It includes sugar, water and minerals -- all ingredients that feed bacteria. I do not recommend leaving the tea out at room temperature for more than a few hours, and definitely not overnight, or you risk the growth of harmful bacteria.
Properly stored in the refrigerator, your sweet tea will last for up to 1 week.
Cook's Tips and Recipe Variations:
- Half Sweet Tea Recipe: This recipe yields a moderately sweet glass of tea. If you prefer a more subtle, less-sweet tea, cut the sugar in half and use just ½ cup.
- Use More Sugar: If you like your tea really sweet, increase the sugar to 1 ½ cups (or more, to taste). That's the beauty of making your own tea at home -- you can adjust the ingredients to suit your preferences.
- Microwave Sweet Tea Recipe: If you don't want to bother with the stovetop, you can boil your water in the microwave. Just make sure that you're using a microwave-safe container (such as a glass Pyrex measuring cup), and keep an eye on the water so that you can see when it just barely comes to a boil. This will take approximately 6-7 minutes on high in the microwave.
- Allow the tea to chill for at least 4 hours, but overnight is best. You don't want to pour lukewarm tea over ice in a glass!
- Garnish: While the tea is delicious over ice on its own, I love the bright, fresh taste that you get from of a squeeze of lemon or a sprig of mint.
More cool summer drinks that you might enjoy:
- Pink Lemonade Italian Spritz
- Banana Blueberry Smoothie
- Homemade Lemonade
- Old-Fashioned Blackberry Lemonade
- Or use your sweet tea to make this Sweet Tea Brined Chicken
Sweet Tea Recipe
- 12 regular-size black tea bags (or 3 family-size tea bags)
- ¼ teaspoon baking soda
- 1 cup granulated sugar (or more or less, to taste)
- 1 gallon water, divided
- For serving: ice; lemon wedges; fresh mint
- Bring 4 cups of water barely to a boil. You can do this on the stovetop, or you can heat the water in the microwave for about 6-7 minutes. Add the tea bags and baking soda to the hot (but not boiling) water and steep for 4-5 minutes.
- Whisk sugar into the hot tea until the sugar is completely dissolved.
- Pour tea into a gallon-size pitcher. Add 3 more quarts (12 cups) of water to the pitcher; stir.
- Refrigerate for at least 4 hours, or overnight. Pour over ice and serve with lemon wedges and fresh mint, if desired.