Southern(-ish) Sweet Tea

So, to put things in perspective - I was not bon in the southern states, but have lived in the SE US now for over 20 years.  
Each area of the US has it’s own ‘pride and joys,’ sometimes well-known and liked by those from other areas (NY Pizza, Cajun food, …) and others not so much, or ast least not immediately.

When I first got here, one of the most immediate things jumping out at me was this Bojangles place, as we’d hit them up for breakfast before bike and car club trips, and well - I still don’t get the fascination with biscuits…fried chicken?  Yummy.  Chicken on a biscuit and calling it breakfast?  Not so much.

The other thing jumping out was ‘sweet tea’ was something you could order literrally everywhere, from diners to spendy restaurants, unless it was one of those truly special restaurants that isn’t from here, and thinks that adding sugar to cold tea is somehow something workable (hint - it isn’t).  

Now, back in the NE US where I grew up, ’sweet tea’ wasn’t a thing, but iced tea at various fast food places was, along with various powders and such, and ’Nestea Brisk’ and other variants, as well as of course, Snapple…it took me a few to sort that, and I’ve got to admiit - there’s some seriously sweet tea at some places in the Southeast, and it took a while, but now I drink it like water.

Better yet, I make a gallon or so a week myself, and after a handful of attempts, have a pretty good recipe that now works - for me.  

NOTE - a list with links to everything I use follows the recipe.

Recipe - sweet tea


Utensils and stuff needed

  • kettle to boil water in.  How much?  It’s not exact for me - fill up the tea pot(the one I use is below) around half-way, so around 16-20oz of water).

  • Slotted spoon of some kind for sanity; preferably one that will fit inside the neck of the tea pot if using one.

  • Measuring cups - 1 cup or 1/2 cup

Making the tea

This is how I do it currently, making at least one batch per week.  I have 4 of the pitchers, so sometimes make two gallons/4 pitchers worth.

Fill 2 of the pitchers with filtered water from the frig water filter.  I fill them up just to the bottom of the threads - when the sugar and tea is dissolved, the level in each will be slightly into the threads, which is fine.

Dump water from one into the glass tea pot, filling it around halfway - this is roughly 16-20oz, then dump the water into the kettle and turn the kettle on.
Pour from the full pitcher into the other to ensure they both have the same amount of water in them.

While the water is coming to a boil, put one Luzianne gallon/family-sized tea bag into the glass tea pot.  Add a pinch of baking soda - read somewhere this helps the tea from not clouding up and begrudgingly tried it.  Seems to work, and does not affect taste, so it’s now part of my routine.  A ‘pinch’ = open the bag, and dig your thumb and forefinger or thumb and middle finger in, bring together and what’s left between the pads of your two fingers = ‘a pinch.’  It’s not much.

Once the water has come to a boil, dump the water into the teapot (note - the tea pot is not heated…am literally just using it to mix in).  Stir gently (careful - don’t tear the bag!), mostly just to ‘dunk’ the bag a bit - don’t worry, it’ll float, and no, you shouldn’t worry about making it not float..  

Set a timer for 5 minutes, or ask Alexa or Siri to do it for you.  Put the lid (not the infuser) on the top of the tea pot and let it steep for 5 minutes.  You don’t need to stir it during this time - just leave it alone.  While waiting for the timer, go ahead and measure out just under 1 cup of sugar into the measuring cup.  Why just under?  To avoid making a mess - just leave a bit of space below the top of the measuring cup rim.

Once the timer goes off, remove the teapot lid, ‘dunk’ the teabag a few times, then take the bag out with a slotted spoon and put onto a paper towel or directly into the trash (with a towel under it to avoid spousal complaints of sticky stuff on the floor ;) ).  

Immediately add in the cup of sugar, then measure and add another 1/2 to cup of sugar, depending on taste.  Most ‘authentic’ sweet tea recipes call for 2-3 cups of sugar per gallon - I started at 2, and now usually use around 1.5cups.  Note that sugar is not easily soluble(dissolve-able) in colder water, so you are better starting off a 2 cups for the first batch, as you can always add in more water later if it’s too sweet.

Add in another pinch of baking soda, and the contents of the True Lemon packets.  

Stir until all of the sugar is fully dissolved.  

Now, making sure the water level is even on your pair of pitchers, go ahead and top up each pitcher equally with the mixture, put on each lid, close the spout, and shake.  

Refrigerate for an hour or more and enjoy!

A few notes

This is what I’ve wound up doing myself, after making sweet tea at home for a few years.  

It’s not ideal fully, I suppose, but it’s close enough.  You could dedicate a kettle to making sweet tea, or convince your other half that making sweet tea weekly or so in the kettle isn’t going to leave any tastes behind, which would remove the ‘need’ for the teapot.

You could do the whole thing in a pot, including using a full gallon of water, and even boiling it on the stove and foregoing the use of a kettle.  Well, we have some stainless pots, including a big All-Clad stock pot that’s suitable, but - there’s added cleanup, as it makes the pot sticky and it doesn’t pour nicely into the pitchers, while the teapot method pours nicely.  The glass teapot I literally rinse out once or twice, then put back immediately, waiting for the next batch.

You could also make larger batches of ‘simple syrup,’ which is just hot water and sugar.  Someone may say this is ‘better’ somehow, versus mixing the sugar in with the steeped tea - I’ve noticed no difference, and well - unless you’re going to make a lot of simple syrup, I fail to see how it saves any time at all, and it makes more things needing cleanup.

The True Lemon packets…when I first attempted making sweet tea at home with Tetley’s, it was…. ‘ok.’  It was missing something.  I eventually got the bag count down right, and the amount of sugar, then started adding lemon juice.  It doesn’t take much, but - some…and it started to ‘taste right.’  I had also tried using real lemons, and squeezing or soaking in up to a full lemon or so per gallon, and everywhere in-between…but, well, sometimes lemons vary.  I found the True Lemon packets, which are basically dehydrated and powderized lemons, with each packet being claimed to equal ‘one lemon slice.’  I really like them for their consistency, but check the pricing - the bulk packages (500) seem to go in and out of stock, while the smaller packages seem to be on the high side, pricing-wise.  I may consider finding other alternatives if they don’t stabilize on availability, but I really like them otherwise (I paid ~$6/100 or $30 for 500 - could be cheaper, but 500 makes 125 gallons of sweet tea for me, so it’s all relative).  If anyone’s found better options, or a reasonable way to regularly get them in bulk at reasonable cost - I’m all ears!

Stuff to make your life easier

A kettle

I’m sure some tea purists will jump in to say how I’m doing it all wrong, but, well - I don’t care.  

Kettles make life easier, although I do measure ’the right amount’ into the kettle, mainly due to one of the other steps I take…

Kettles are great, they heat water quickly without involving the microwave, and if you love alone, well - you might go ahead and steep the tea in them as well (I don’t…but I have ;) ) 

You can of course, also use a pot, but - I like the kettle.  Water’s ready in a few minutes and low drama overall.

Jugs and Pitchers

This was far more annoying to eventually find what I was looking for than I would have ever thought.  

After going down the rabbit whole into types of glass like borosilicante glass (good stuff), but also thickness (everyone likes to make them thinner and thinner…meh), knowing I’d be at least putting warm water in them, and trying a few things that just didn’t work/made a mess, I came across the best solution I’ve found yet, which is effectively a set of Ball Jars, as a pitcher.  

I like these enough I now have 4 of them, and overall - they’re simply great.  They’re thick, heavy duty, don’t leak, and are sized well.  Each one is a half gallon, which also works well for other drinks, and I use two of them to make a gallon of sweet tea at a time.

And…a teapot??

This is optional, depending on what your inidividual preferences are, e.g. if boiling the water in a kettle, then throwing the tea directly in there (might want to use a dedicated kettle in that case - ours is not dedicated).

I’ve tried but do not use the tea infuser/filter - it might work well if using smaller tea bags, but is just too small for the larger tea bags, while the specialty ‘sweet tea’ bag tea is on the finer side, so I wound up with some tea escaping the filter.

For how I use it - it’s great, and the wife loves it and occasionally uses it, as well. This one, slightly bigger, is also great.