Recipes » Beverage Recipes » Southern Iced Sweet Tea

Southern Iced Sweet Tea

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5 from 6 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.

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.

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


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

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  • Water – I’ve seen some recommendations for using “filtered” water. I’ve been making tea for over 60 years 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.

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


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

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.

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.

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.

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

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 and Tips


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, 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.

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.

More Beverage Recipes


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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.

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 6 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. 
  • 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

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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83 Comments

  1. We always add a pinch of baking soda while steeping. I was told by my grandmother it takes away any bitterness from the tea. But its possible that it could just have been one of those things passed down and we continue to do because grandma did

    1. I’ve heard that from a lot of people. I never have done it, but maybe I’ll give it a try, too!

  2. I add a pinch of baking soda to mine and ended up reducing the sugar. The baking soda takes the bitterness out and makes the tea much sweeter on its own. I make a gallon using only 1/2 cup sugar. It is very sweet.

  3. I learned not everyone drank iced tea when I move to Arizona it was surprising we always had sweet tea at our family table…..I just make it at home now the restaurants just cant get it tasting the right way… although I’m not from the south I’m from the Midwest I can’t wait to make it like this I’ve always wanted to try true southern sweet tea

  4. I had never tried sweet tea until about a month ago. It was at a hospital and it was brewed, next to brewed unsweetened tea. I figured I would try it since Im a fan of tea. The best tea I have ever had. I’ve been searching for premade sweetened tea ever since and I can’t find anything as good or as sweet as I did that day. I’m going to try this recipe this weekend and hope I get close ;0)

  5. Love this tea….but it isn’t only from the south. We have been making this in our family at least since Grandmother in the late 1800’s. My mother – in -law who was born in 1918 said her mother always made it and we all make it in the family. Only difference is we use 6 regular tea bags, all other measurements the same. My 2nd son likes his only brewed for 5 min. Through the years we vary our tea bag choices between time and or family members. I currently use Red Rose but for many years only used Tetley and then Lipton. It’s just a preference. Currently most of prefer it without lemon but for years we had it only with lemon and added it directly to the pitcher.

  6. I’ve never actually had Sweet Tea, but I’ve been meaning to change that. What sort of tea bags do you use? Would black tea work?

    1. Karlie, I use two family size tea bags, typically Tetley’s brand. Other brands are Lipton and Luzianne. Any of them make a very fine iced tea. And, yes, black tea will work quite nicely.

  7. I really like your idea of adding the sugar to the warm tea. This seems a lot easier & quicker then making simple syrup, then letting it cool before adding to the brewed tea as I’ve seen in every iced tea recipe.

  8. Hi Lana. I lived In Augusta, GA for 4 years while in the military and let me tell you…..I LOVED IT (even more than HI). My question is: What Flavor tea bags would I use to make (extra)ordinary sweet tea? I really don’t want to use “other” flavors such as rasberry or lemon. I want traditional. Thanks. By the way, I’m thinking of opening a Southern style restaurant in Mexico with the basic fixn’s like country fried steak, biscuits n gravy, etc.

  9. Visiting from Content Brew this week. Since I am a Georgia Girl and love sweet tea (obviously), I just had to click on this post!

  10. I am glad i finally found an iced tea recipe the way i loved it when i was in the usa.. But can you help me switch the 2 family size teabags with normal tea bags? Thank you

    1. Hi Yasmine – I think it varies by brand, but generally one family size tea bag is equal to three small tea bags.

      1. Hi, for Luzianne Tea the individual (small) tea bags are 2 gr. and the family size are 7 gr. Hope this helps.

  11. I moved from the north of Europe to the south (of Europe, that is) and found a lot of crops and food that I had no idea how to use in cooking so I started looking on the internet and found Southern cooking. Apart from the seafood we have the same ingredients but the flavours of the American South suit me much better than the local cooking here. They do like iced tea here, but it has almost no flavour and they prefer herbal teas to black tea. We’ve been using your recipe since last summer and it is wonderful :) Thank you for a very inspiring blog.

  12. Oh how i love sweet tea. i would rather have it than food lol. ill tell you a good story. I got sick and was put on a ventilator to keep me alive for 11 days for a few of the last days all i could do was point to letters the first thing i asked for was sweet tea. and they had it waiting for me when i came off the machine. crazy i know but i love it. i cant believe there is people that have never tasted it or think you can add sugar to iced tea. i did a craft show one year and there was a lady from Brooklyn who had never tried it. i went inside and fixed her some right up and she loved it. this is just like my recipe. definately the wine of the south

  13. Just found your recipe and site – too cute by the way – and just had to try it! I grew up in the south and lived there all my life before beginning my current adventure in Spain. The one thing I always miss though is proper Sweet Tea. I saw your recipe – and why I’ve tried a few others in the past, yours takes the cake. Reminds me so much of home! I’m bringing a pitcher into school tomorrow to let my students try while I give them a presentation on North Carolina – they’re about to start a unit on US States. They’ve been dying to try it since I keep raving and talking about it. Just wanted to say Thanks! The recipe is sweet southern perfection!

    1. Aw, Lauren. Your comment just made my day! So happy you found the blog and I do hope you’ll come back again. I’d love to know what your students think about sweet tea :-)

  14. Just found your website by way of tastespotting and man am I a happy girl today! Your post put a smile on my face!

    This recipe is the same recipe I use and that my families’ used for as long as I can remember (I’m pretty sure, some of our babies have had it in a bottle, I’m just sayin), but it’s just funny to see it in a recipe format and to read the comments from people about it. Seems sweet tea has quite a ‘cult’ following by now. Raised on it, proud of it, can’t get enough of it. There’s ALWAYS a pitcher of this in our home. Love your site, can’t wait to explore some of your other southern treasures.

  15. Yummy! This recipe for sweet tea is delicions! I am one of those people that had never heard of “Sweet Tea” until I moved from the Midwest to NC about 7 years ago. And it took me about 5 more years to actually become accustomed to sweet tea and now I can’t get enough. I will be making my tea this way from now on!

  16. I used to not like sweet tea because my dad,my paternal grandmother, and paternal uncle all made their tea very strong and bitter. They used only half a cup of sugar. However, I recently moved to Tennesee where my maternal family lives and my aunt always uses at least a cup and a hal of sugar and I’ve grown to enjoy it, though my brother complains that it is too sweet.

  17. I love sweet tea with lemon. However, hadn’t had it in awhile since I am a diabetic. I will try your recipe with Splenda.

    Love your site