When it’s hot and sticky out, there is nothing like a glass of iced tea to change your perspective. Cool and dewy with condensation, ice cubes clinking gently while dancing with a lemon slice or sprig of mint, sipping iced tea seems to slow everything down and cool everyone off.
Growing up we didn’t have iced tea on a regular basis - occasionally my mom would make sun tea which I know my brother and I added far too much sugar to in an attempt to sweeten it to our taste. Eventually the instant powdered form of tea found its way into our kitchen cupboard and Steven and I would mix up glasses of a hideously dark brown sludge with a layer of un-dissolved sugar in the bottom so sweet that our teeth should’ve ached and so unlike tea that it was an insult to the word.
While the ‘instant tea’ phase of my life faded away and was replaced by bottled tea (a slight improvement) I still wasn’t aware of the importance of home-brewed iced tea as a culture. I first noticed that some people took this iced tea thing seriously when I watched a segment about Southern Sweet Tea on a cooking show. The host couldn’t say enough about the importance of serving this in the summertime, and spent lots of time talking about both its history and ‘only’ proper way to prepare it.
When I looked into it, it became clear that anyone who had anything to say about iced tea, particularly that beverage referred to as ‘sweet tea’, had a strong opinion. Personal taste had lots to do with it, but mostly southern sweet tea was just that - sweet. Lots of sugar - as much as a cup and a half of sugar to just 4 cups of water! - was added to the brewing tea which was then diluted with cool water. Just how much sugar very often seemed to depend upon how much one’s grandma had used in her recipe. I also discovered several recipes that suggested adding a small amount of baking soda to take away any bitterness in the tea, which I thought very interesting. I didn’t seem to notice the difference, but people who swore by it said that it gave it a very ‘smooth’ taste.
My ‘research’ showed me that making my own iced tea on a regular basis would be simple enough and yet, it didn’t become a habit. I did find a delicious recipe for a spiced iced tea that was a bit more complicated as it required making a spiced, simmered simple syrup of sugar and water that was then used to sweeten brewed tea. It was so good, in fact, that we served it at my brother’s bride-to-be’s bridal shower. Wonderful for special occasions, it took just a bit too much effort to find its way into my regular cold summer beverage routine.
Then, last summer, I was re-introduced to the simplicity of delicious home-brewed iced tea by friends. Served while we would be chatting by their pool, they always had a pitcher of tea in the refrigerator, ready to pour over ice. When asked about it, I was assured that it was easy, and sure enough it was. While there are ‘his and hers’ versions, each with their own preferred sugar-to-tea ratio (based, sure enough, on what their respective relatives had done before them), the basic principal is simple. Brew the tea with sugar (no baking soda here), top off with cool water and then add a bit of citrus (lemon juice for Sue, orange juice and pulp for Gary) and voila! Iced tea ready to serve to pool-invading friends! Poolside Tea
Place four of your favorite tea bags in a 4 cup heat-proof container (a Pyrex measuring cup works perfectly). Add one-third to one-half cup sugar (or other sweetener to taste). Carefully pour 4 cups boiling water over all and allow to steep approximately 10 minutes (steeping too long may allow the tea to become bitter). Remove tea bags, pour tea into a 2-quart pitcher and add cool water to top, about 4 cups. If desired, add lemon juice or the juice and pulp of a freshly squeezed orange. When serving, garnish with a slice of fruit and/or a sprig of mint.
Perhaps one of the nicest things about this method of making tea is that it is so easy to experiment with and find versions that you love. Any tea can be used. While black teas are ‘traditional’, herbal teas are delicious. Following family tradition, Sue & Gary’s daughter made a delicious peppermint iced tea that was served this evening with dinner. Try mixing teas as well - how about a chamomile and peppermint combination? Peach and rosehips? Then experiment with the amount of sugar you use to find the sweetness that is most pleasing to you. Unsweetened tea is yummy as well and can be a nice way to offer people the opportunity to sweeten to their own taste. If going this route, you may want to provide a small pitcher of maple or simple syrup as stirred sugar into a cold drink doesn’t dissolve well. Just mix 1 part water with 1 part sugar and simmer until the sugar dissolves, then cool. The options are practically endless.
The following is the recipe for the spiced tea that I serve at for special occasions. I found the original recipe way too sweet, so have cut back on the amount of sugar used. Again, experiment until you find the way you like it best.
Spiced Iced Tea
Simmer two-thirds cup sugar, 1 cup water, 1 whole nutmeg, 2 cinnamon sticks, and 1 orange, studded with cloves in a small saucepan for about 10 minutes. Cover and allow to cool. Strain and add to 2 cups orange juice, 1/4 cup lemon juice and 6 cups cooled brewed black tea (4 tea bags steeped in 6 cups water for 10 minutes). Serve over ice with lemon and orange slices as well as mint if desired.
Summer is the perfect time to experiment with finding the most refreshing pitcher of iced tea you keep in your refrigerator. It’s a wonderfully easy thing to have at-the-ready for friends and family who may drop by on these hot, summer days. And don’t forget a tall glass for yourself after an afternoon of gardening or mowing the lawn, satisfying your thirst as well as congratulating you for a job well done.