Recipes » Beverage Recipes » Southern Iced Sweet Tea

Southern Iced Sweet Tea

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5 from 3 votes
Southern Iced Sweet Tea, a strong infusion of black tea that is sweetened and served over ice, is an essential element of southern cuisine.
Cook Time 20 minutes
A glass of southern iced sweet tea with lemon and mint.

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!

Ahh, sweet tea. The nectar of life to a southerner.

A glass of southern iced sweet tea with lemon and mint.

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.

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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.

A glass of southern iced sweet tea with lemon and mint on a serving tray.

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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.


  • 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

Ingredients needed to make sweet tea -- sugar, tea bags, water.

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  • Water
  • Tea bags
  • Sugar

You’ll find detailed measurements for all ingredients in the printable version of the recipe at the bottom of this post.

Tea being poured from a pitcher into a glass with ice.

Here’s the Best Way to Make a Pitcher of Southern Iced Sweet Tea

Let’s Go Step-by-Step

I always like to show you the photos and step-by-step instructions for my recipes to help you picture how to make them in your own kitchen. If you just want to print out a copy, you can skip to the bottom of the post where you’ll find the recipe card.

STEP 1. Place one quart of water in a pan and bring to a boil. Add the tea bags.

COOK’S 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.

COOK’S 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.

COOK’S 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. 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.

A glass of southern iced sweet tea with lemon and mint on a serving tray.
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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.

FAQs

What type of tea is best for 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.

Can I use artificial sweeteners in my tea?

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.

How long can I store this in the refrigerator?

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.

Can I add fruit to my tea? Don’t y’all drink peach tea in the south?

No, honey. 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.)

I’ve seen recipes that say add a pinch of baking soda. Do you recommend that?

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.

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Sweet Tea Candle! Make Your Whole House Smell Like Sweet Tea.

Sweet Tea Candle! Make Your Whole House Smell Like Sweet Tea.
Sweet Tea Candle! Make Your Whole House Smell Like Sweet Tea.

Recipe

A glass of southern iced sweet tea with lemon and mint.

Southern Iced Sweet Tea

Southern Iced Sweet Tea, a strong infusion of black tea that is sweetened and served over ice, is an essential element of southern cuisine.
5 from 3 votes
Print It Rate It
Course: Beverages
Cuisine: Southern
Cook Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 20 minutes
Servings: 8 servings
Calories: 97kcal
Author: Lana Stuart

Ingredients

  • 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

Instructions

  • 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.

Notes

TIPS AND FAQs
  • Always start with cold water. If the water is warm or room temperature, it can make your tea cloudy. 
  • 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.
 
What type of tea is best for 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 from between brands, just like coffee, with each brand having a unique blend of flavors.
Can I use artificial sweeteners in my tea? 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.
How long can I store this in the refrigerator? 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.
Can I add fruit to my tea? Don’t y’all drink peach tea in the south? No, honey. 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.)
I’ve seen recipes that say add a pinch of baking soda. Do you recommend that? 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.

Nutrition Information

Serving: 1 | Calories: 97kcal | Carbohydrates: 25g | Sodium: 12mg | Potassium: 1mg | Sugar: 25g | Calcium: 7mg | Iron: 1mg

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 health care provider or a registered dietitian if precise nutrition calculations are needed for health reasons.

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Recipe Rating




81 Comments

  1. 5 stars
    If you don’t have tea bags to make ice tea where you live, you need to move. As my boyhood friend and idol, Lewis Grizzard used to say, “American by birth, Southern by the grace of God.”

  2. 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.

    Just sayin’. Also, if you use half sugar and half stevia, it tastes great with half the calories.

    Miss P

  3. You missed the pinch of baking soda..Talk about tea flavor! The soda immediately brings out the deep color and tea flavor..My grandma taught me this trick in Virginia when I was a girl..yum

  4. We don’t have family size tea bags here where I live .So how much single should I use. I just love sweet tea the first time I tried sweet tea was in a restaurant in Georgia and I loved it ever since. I buy some every time we go to the states

    1. Hi Martha – thanks for asking! In general, one family size tea bags is equivalent to four regular size bags. Hope that helps.

  5. Back in the early 70ies as new bride moving from my home state of Delaware to Georgia, my new in-laws ALWAYS had (iced) tea. I never heard it called ‘Sweet Tea’, until recently. When I was married, ‘he’ expected tea every day but I never really understood the obsession. It had a LOT of sugar!!!! … which is probably why his teeth were so brown; never mind ALL that SUGAR!!! I never drank it as it was too sweet, but if we didn’t have a full pitcher in the frig ‘somebody’ was cranky! My iced tea uses Splenda and I try not to double the amount of water, instead filling the pitcher with as many ice cubes as possible so the tea isn’t diluted with too much water and too many ice cubes. Thank you, Lana for another Memory Lane moment.

  6. There’s plenty of sweet tea in St. Louis. Remember, a ton of Southerners flooded St. Louis for many decades for industrial jobs. Then, it’s a city in a pseudo-Southern state whose southwest edge is the foothills of the Ozarks. It was definitely the particular restaurant you were at. While many places in the lower Midwest (including many places in Missouri) don’t have sweet tea, what is really strange is iced tea in general being “out of season”. I had never heard of that.

  7. I am a northerner. And I love sweet tea! Your recipe is exactly how I make my ice tea (sweet tea). Been doing this for years. Drinking it right now! I have it all year long. Even in the dead of winter. Thanks for sharing your recipe.

  8. Whew! What a relief to know I’ve been making Sweet Tea correctly all these years! Y’all may think that sounds strange or snarky but I’ve often wondered. I do get rave reviews over my Sweet Tea, and this is exactly how I make it after much trial & error. One minor difference: I add a couple shakes of salt to the hot water as the tea steeps. That really amps up the flavor without making anything overpowering. Even my sugar-averse Better Half loves my Sweet Tea. :-) Just for the record, I *only* use Luzianne family-sized tea bags. It’s positively the BEST. Thanks for sharing this Lana – and here’s to Sweet Tea lovers everywhere!