Southern Sweet Tea, a strong infusion of black tea that is sweetened and served over ice, is as essential to southern cuisine as fried chicken and collard greens. Depending on personal preference, it may also include a squeeze of lemon juice. And it’s never limited to warmer weather here, it appears on our tables every day of the year!
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Ahh, sweet tea. The nectar of life to a southerner.
I can’t remember a single day of my life when there wasn’t a pitcher of fresh, homemade sweet tea in my refrigerator. Its constant presence is just a part of the fabric of daily living. It’s the beverage of choice for lunch and supper, and it’s not unheard of to have a glass 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.
✍🏻 The Origins of Sweet Tea
While it’s impossible to nail down the exact date that sweet tea was invented, the first recorded recipe was published in an 1839 cookbook called The Kentucky Housewife by Lettice Bryan. Early versions were made with green tea and were served as alcoholic punches at fancy parties.
Over time, the recipe slowly shifted to black tea since it was less expensive and easier to get. During prohibition in the 1920s, the beverage evolved from an alcoholic drink into a “mocktail” of sorts and that’s the origin of the sweet tea that we know today!
🙄 Not Everyone Drinks Iced Tea All Year Round
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 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? Whoever 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.
😲 Yes, It Really Is That Important
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 about to be 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 actually an April Fool’s joke, but I don’t believe it.
WHAT PEOPLE ARE SAYING …
“If you come to my house, and there is no tea in the refrigerator, either:
a) we just finished the last pitcher, and more is in process, or;
b) I am sick.“
— Miss P
❤️ What You’ll Love About This Recipe
- It’s traditional; we’ve been drinking it since we were born
- Easy to make
- Goes with everything
- It’s budget friendly
- You probably already have the ingredients on hand
🍃 Ingredients You’ll Need
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- Water – I’ve seen some recommendations for using “filtered” water. I’ve been making tea for decades and I use plain tap water.
- Tea Bags – My preferred brand is Luzianne. Tetley is also good.
- Sugar – White, granulated sugar like Dixie Crystals brand.
🥄 Here’s the Best Way to Make a Pitcher of Southern Iced Sweet Tea
STEP 1. Place one quart of water in a pan and bring to a boil. Add the tea bags.
👉 PRO TIP: I mostly use family size tea bags for making my tea, but you can use the regular size ones just as well. Remember that 4 regular tea bags (or 4 teaspoons of loose tea) equals one family size tea bag.
STEP 2. Cover the pan, remove it from the heat and let it steep for 10-15 minutes.
👉 PRO TIP: 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.
STEP 3. Remove the tea bags and add the sugar.
STEP 4. Stir until completely dissolved.
👉 PRO TIP: 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 (because science, y’all). Same as when they bring you some unsweetened iced tea and two sugar packets in a restaurant. Like two packs of sugar are 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!
STEP 5. Add the additional quart of cold water.
STEP 6. Stir well.
Makes two quarts of the prettiest, sweetest tea you ever tasted. Serve the tea over ice. Lemon and mint are optional.
❗ Recipe Tips
- Always start with cold water. If the water is warm or room temperature, it can make your tea cloudy.
- Be sure to add the sugar while the 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.
- Use a non-reactive saucepan for boiling the water and steeping the tea so you don’t cause any unwanted chemical reaction.
- Never pour hot tea into a glass pitcher (ask me how I know this is a bad idea). Refrigerate the tea or at least cool it to room temperature first.
- Don’t skimp on steeping time. You want a really strong infusion of tea.
❓ Questions About Sweet Tea
You can use any brand of tea that you prefer, but you’ll find that most Southerners tend to use Luzianne black tea bags. The taste does vary between brands, just like coffee, with each brand having a unique blend of flavors.
Of course you can. Authentic southern sweet tea is sweetened with sugar, but my goodness we can’t drink that every single day, right? To be honest, I only use sugar for special occasions these days. Our everyday tea is sweetened with Splenda.
We drink a whole pitcher every day, so storage really has never been an issue. However, you can actually keep sweet tea for about three days refrigerated. After that, it’s not so fresh. It’s best stored in a plastic or glass pitcher with a well fitting lid.
No, darling. Peach tea isn’t a southern thing. It’s something made up to sell beverages like raspberry tea and strawberry tea and hibiscus tea. (Can you tell I don’t like fruit teas?) But you add whatever you want to in your tea. It just won’t be southern sweet tea you’re drinking.
Some cooks do actually add a pinch of baking soda to their tea. They say it neutralizes the sometimes bitter taste from over-steeping tea. I don’t add it to mine, but feel free to try it if you like.
🧾 More Beverage Recipes
- Watermelon Cherry Limeade
- Ginger Praline Coffee Float
- Infused Water (Agua Fresca
- Baptist Church Party Punch
- Strawberry Lemon Limeade
- Spiced Tea a.k.a Russian Tea
>> See all my best southern comfort food recipes. <<
More Questions? I’m happy to help!
If you have more questions about the recipe, or if you’ve made it and would like to leave a comment, scroll down to leave your thoughts, questions, and/or rating!
Thanks so much for stopping by!
Southern Iced Sweet Tea
- 2 quarts cold water divided
- 2 family size tea bags or 8 regular size tea bags or 8 teaspoons of loose tea (recommend Luzianne brand)
- 1 cup sugar
- Place one quart of water in a pan and bring to a boil. Add the tea bags.
- Cover the pan, remove it from the heat and let it steep for 10-15 minutes.
- Remove the tea bags and add the sugar.
- Stir until completely dissolved.
- Add the additional quart of cold water.
- Stir well.
- Always start with cold water.
- Use a non-reactive saucepan for boiling the water and steeping the tea.
- Never pour hot tea into a glass pitcher. Refrigerate the tea or at least cool it to room temperature first.
- Don’t skimp on steeping time. You want a really strong infusion of tea.
- Use any brand of tea that you like. Most Southerners tend to use Luzianne black tea bags. The taste does vary from between brands, just like coffee, with each brand having a unique blend of flavors.
- Substitute an artificial sweetener for the sugar if you like.
- Store it in the refrigerator for about three days in a plastic or glass pitcher with a well fitting lid.
Nutrition information is calculated by software based on the ingredients in each recipe. It is an estimate only and is provided for informational purposes. You should consult your healthcare provider or a registered dietitian if precise nutrition calculations are needed for health reasons.