About 20 years or so ago I was in Michigan on a music tour (I used to march with Spirit of Atlanta Drum and Bugle Corps). Some friends and I went to a restaurant on a day off. The waitress came around and asked how we were, told us about the specials, and then asked for our drink orders. I was the last to be asked out of the 4 of us… “Ok, 2 Cokes, a Diet Coke, and what would you like?” I replied, “Sweet tea, please.” She stared at me a little blankly, then said “We don’t have sweet tea… you’ll have to sweeten your own tea.”
What?! Are you serious?
Come to find out, most restaurants in the North don’t sweeten tea. They make iced tea, and you have to do it yourself. Of course, that was 20 years ago, and I haven’t been north of the Mason Dixon line since, so things may have changed a little.
At any rate, I’m going to show you (and that waitress, if for some strange chance she reads my blog) how to make good, Southern sweet tea.
For starters, boil your water. It doesn’t matter how much, really. I usually use a medium saucepan filled about 2/3 full. Bring the water to a good, hard boil, then turn it off and move it off the heat. Drop in 8 small tea bags (the kind that usually make 1 cup each), or if you use the family size ones, I use 4. Let the tea steep for about 5 minutes.
(On a side note, I used to put my tea bags in the automatic drip coffee maker, but as with brewing coffee, the water doesn’t get hot enough to draw all of the flavor out of the tea bags like boiled water does.)
While the tea steeps, pour 1 HEAPING cup of sugar into your pitcher. When I say “1 heaping cup” what I really mean is more like 1-1/4 to 1-1/2 cups of sugar. Remember, this is Southern sweet tea.
Next, add a pinch of baking soda to the pitcher. Baking soda?!? Yes, you read right. That’s the secret trick! A pinch of baking soda does a couple of things. It keeps the tea from getting cloudy, and it neutralizes the tannins in the tea to make the flavor a little less bitter and a little more smooth. Trust me on this one.
Now that the tea has steeped for 5 minutes, pour it into the pitcher (careful, it’s still hot). Stir well until the sugar is completely dissolved. I personally use a whisk, but you can use a wooden or plastic spoon, or anything you like, really. I used to stir my tea with the same wooden spoon (affiliate link) every time, but that became a play toy for the kids, so a whisk does fine.
Once the sugar is totally dissolved, run cold water over the tea bags to pull out any remaining tea and pour it into the pitcher until it’s full. Stir again. (Don’t throw away those tea bags… toss them into your compost pile to add nitrogen to the compost!)