No meal in the South would be complete without sweet tea and here's how to make it correctly.
In the Southeast, when you ask for tea, people assume you mean iced and sweet, and that's the way they serve it. The sweetener is always refined white sugar. Not honey. Not artificial. Sweet tea in Georgia seems to be sweeter than most other places. Georgians are so serious about their sweet tea that on April Fools' Day 2003 several Georgia state legislators introduced a bill that said (a) As used in this Code section, the term 'sweet tea' means iced tea which is sweetened with sugar at the time that it is brewed. "Any food service establishment which serves iced tea must serve sweet tea. Such an establishment may serve unsweetened tea but in such case must also serve sweet tea. Any person who violates this Code section shall be guilty of a misdemeanor of a high and aggravated nature."
The amount of sugar is personal, and Southern restaurants make sure the the sugar dispenser is full. Trey Murrell, Rogersville, TN, wrote to tell me "Most folks in the deep South like more than 1 cup of sugar. I put 2 cups myself. My grandmother, who grew up in South Carolina, puts 2 cups in hers. I heard one older man say that he likes his tea so sweet, if he runs out of pancake syrup, he'll use his tea."
Beware of sun tea
Sun tea is a method of making tea by pouring tea leaves into water in a clear class jar and sitting it in the sun to steep. People like it because the results are less tannic and bitter than boiled tea. It is also a lovely way to grow pathogens.
Tea leaves are grown in fields where birds and other animals can easily contaminate them with droppings. They are harvested by dirty hands. Many tea leaves are also dried in the open. They are not washed or pasteurized.
Steeping the leaves warm and wet in ambient air temp is a pathogen incubator. UV from the sun and tannin from the leaves may inhibit growth a bit, like a speed bump, but they cannot stop it. Boiling tea leaves kills all microbes. Boil your tea, please.
If you want to brew tea without boiling water, mix 2 to 3 tablespoons of tea leaves in 1/2 gallon of water and leave it in the fridge over night. Strain and serve.
Southern Sweet Tea Recipe
The key here is sweet. As it should be.
Makes. 1/2 gallon
Takes. Up to 12 hours
1/2 gallon fresh, clean, water
4 family size tea bags or 8 regular tea bags
1 cup granulated sugar
1) Heat. Pour the water in a 3 quart or larger pot and boil.
2) Steep. Turn the heat off and add the teabags. Cover to steep the tea for 5-7 minutes. Steep it longer to make it stronger and more bitter. Squeezing the teabags makes it stronger and more bitter. Most folks will like it better if you don't steep it longer than 7 minutes and if you don't squeeze the tea bags.
3) Sweet. Add the sugar and stir until dissolved.
4) Chill. Refrigerate the tea. Some folks like to age it 12 hours or so, others like to serve it warm over ice. It can get skunky if you keep it more than a few days.
5) Serve. Serve over ice cubes with lemon wedges and/or mint leaves as garnish.