Ahh, sweet tea. Nectar to a Southerner and as essential to our cuisine as fat back and turnip greens. As Dolly Parton famously said in Steel Magnolias – “Sweet Tea! House wine of the South!” And it is.
I can’t remember a single day of my life when there was not a pitcher of sweet tea in my refrigerator. Its constant presence is just a part of life. It’s the beverage of choice for lunch and supper and has been enjoyed at breakfast on hot, sultry summer days. Some of us are even guilty of putting it in babies’ bottles. Not that I would ever do something like that.
It wasn’t until I was a young adult that I learned that not everyone in the world drinks sweet tea every day. And let me tell you, it was a rude awakening, too. It was on a trip to Nebraska when we stopped in St. Louis for a meal. I, being the naive little southern girl that I was, ordered sweet tea with my meal. After all, it was what we had at home and ordered any time we went out to eat. Well, the waiter looked right down his nose and told me he was “very sorry but iced tea is out of season.” Huh? Out of season? Who ever heard of such a thing! Not to be outdone, though, I asked him if hot tea was available. “Why certainly,” he said! Well then, I said, “May I please have a cup of hot tea and a glass of ice?” Got my sweet tea.
Don’t believe me yet about the importance of sweet tea to Southerners? When my husband’s company was planning the closing of its manufacturing facility in south Georgia a few years ago, they held a meeting for all the employees so that they could discuss the closure and possibilities for jobs with the company in its northeastern U.S. locations. After some explanation, they asked if there were questions. They expected questions about benefits, moving expenses, transition assistance. You know the usual things on the minds of people being uprooted from their homes and sent halfway across the country. What was the first question asked? Wait for it — “Do they serve sweet tea in the company cafeteria?” I am not joking.
Just in case you still don’t believe me, back in 2003 a bill was introduced in the Georgia state legislature that would make it a misdemeanor for a restaurant that offered tea on its menu to not offer sweet tea as well. They said the next day that it was really an April Fool’s joke, but I don’t believe it.
Here’s how to make yourself a pitcher of southern nectar.
2 quarts cold water, divided
2 family size tea bags
1 cup sugar
Place one quart of water in a pan and bring to a boil. Add the tea bags, cover, remove from the heat and let it steep for 10-15 minutes.
Now, I know that all the tea companies’ instructions say to steep for 3 to 5 minutes. But I’m telling you that most southern cooks will steep at least 15 minutes. Sometimes more. We just want to get all the goodness we can out of those tea leaves! When the steeping time is over I also stir the bags around in the water for a while and then give them a good squeeze before I remove them.
Remove the tea bags, add the sugar and stir until completely dissolved. Now, here’s another thing you need to know. Make sure to add your sugar while your steeped tea is still good and warm. If you try to add sugar to cold water you’ll never get it to go into solution. Same thing when they bring you some iced tea and two sugar packets in a restaurant. Like two packs of sugar is enough to start with, but you’ll never get that tea sweet enough after the ice has been added. The sugar just won’t dissolve!
Add the additional quart of cold water and stir. Makes two quarts of the prettiest, sweetest tea you ever tasted. Serve the tea over ice. Lemon and/or mint are optional.
Other posts about sweet tea:
- “What makes Southern sweet tea so special?” by Jeffery Klineman
- Alton Brown’s recipe for Sweet Tea
- Mint Iced Tea from Paula Deen