Southern Sweet Tea With A Secret Ingredient

Southern sweet tea with a secret ingredient

Now that we’re past Memorial Day, I think it’s safe to say summer has unofficially begun! (Right?!) And nothing says summer quite like a sweaty glass of sweet tea sipped on the front porch on a lazy Sunday morning.

I first discovered sweet tea — real sweet tea, Southern style — over a decade ago when I was moving cross-country from New York to California. I spent two weeks on the road, taking the southern route and passing through Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. I became convinced that I was a Southern gal in a former life, because aside from Asian food, I love love love some good old-fashioned comfort food from the South accompanied by an icy glass of fresh-brewed sweet tea.

After my umpteenth glass of sweet tea swigged on that sweltering day back in June 2001, I finally asked the kind lady how to make it. And she revealed to me the secret ingredient of a true Southern sweet tea: baking soda.

Now I know this might sound weird to most of you, but trust me on it. Or rather, trust the generations of sweet tea drinkers in the South who swear by it. A pinch of baking soda makes a world of difference in a pitcher of freshly brewed sweet tea. It neutralizes the tannins in black tea, giving it a smoother taste. (This same trick works to take the bitterness out of other teas as well; you can add a teeny pinch to a mug of hot tea while steeping.)

I like to make my tea somewhat sweet, but not too sweet, so your personal preference may be to add more or less simple syrup. Pour the sweet tea over a glass full of ice… maybe garnish with a slice of lemon and a sprig of mint if you’re feeling feisty!

Southern Sweet Tea With a Secret Ingredient
Makes 2 liters


For the Tea
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
8 cups hot water
4 family size black tea bags (Lipton and Luzianne are common brands formulated for iced tea brewing)

For the Syrup
1 cup water
3/4 cup sugar


Let’s talk tea for a moment. I love loose leaf tea and buy mine by the pound from a Chinese tea shop (thanks to my dad, who is the tea connoisseur). But for brewing a big pitcher of iced tea (and bringing me back to that summer in the South), Lipton tea bags (or Luzianne, if you really want to keep it real) are cheap and convenient. That said, feel free to use any kind of tea you like here, though black tea is always a classic.

These are not the cold brew bags, but iced tea bags that still require hot water. Typically, family size tea bags are equivalent to four single-serve tea bags and they’re labeled as “iced tea bags” because they don’t turn cloudy when refrigerated. This is a moot point with our secret ingredient though, as baking soda helps get rid of that cloudiness anyway.

Family size iced tea bags

Add the baking soda and just-boiled hot water to a heat-proof pitcher. Steep your tea bags for about 5 minutes.

Add baking soda, the secret ingredient

Steep tea bags

Meanwhile, make the simple syrup by combining the water and sugar in a small saucepan over medium heat. Stir until the sugar is completely dissolved.

Simple syrup

Remove the tea bags from your pitcher. Pour in the simple syrup, stir, and serve!

Traditional Southern sweet tea

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June 2 2013      32 comments     Linda Ly
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  • Tony Overcash

    okay, here is how you make Southern Sweet Tea….and I have been told by many that mine is the best that they have ever tasted…no ego here by the way…. I always use S&D Family sized tea bags. S&D is a local company, but can be ordered on the internet. I personally use the Decafe teabags, because my doctor took me off of caffeine several years ago. One Family size bag will make one gallon of sweet tea. I use a 4 cup glass measuring cup to make my tea. I place the S&D teabag in the bottom of the cup and fill it up with about 2 and a half cups of water. I then place it in the microwave oven and microwave it on high for about 9 minutes. The trick to good ice tea is NOT TO BOIL YOUR WATER!!!!!! After the microwave shuts down, I leave it in there to steep for about 4 minutes. In the mean time I take 1 cup of sugar and 1 cup of Stevia and place it in a plastic tea jug and add just enough water to get the mixture wet. After 4 minutes steeping in the microwave, I pour the hot tea into the plastic tea jug and stir the sugar and tea together. I then take 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda and place it in the tea mixture and stir. While this is going on, I take the used teabag and place another 2 cups and a half (and I forgot to mention this, I use filtered water from a faucet water filter to make my tea)water and place the teabag and water back in the microwave and heat for 8 minutes, again do not let it start to boil. After the microwave goes off let it set for 3 minutes and then pour it in the tea mixture. Stir good. Now add ice from your freezer(and again, my freezer ice is made using filtered water) I usually use about 5 cups of ice in the plastic container. I stir this until all the ice is melted and then I place the tea into a gallon milk container(makes it easier to store and less likely to get spilled when getting it out of the refrigerator. This sounds like it is a lot of trouble, but trust me, you will get so much compliments on your delicious ice tea, you will not even think about how long it took you to make it….Enjoy!!!

  • Amanda

    My step mom makes some of the worst sweet tea, she steeps the bags for hours and it is extremely strong. I’m going to have to remember this trick so I can sneak a pinch in the pitcher next time I go back to the south for a visit!

  • Baily

    That’s a strange way to make tea. Here in GA we fill up a pot with water, pop 2 or 3 family sized Luzianne tea bags in and bring it to a boil. When it boils we pull it from the heat and wait a minute or two. Then you pour it in your pitcher and put how much ever sugar you want in it (my family uses two cups). Finally you mix it all together and top it off with cold water.

    • Baily

      of course you drain out the tea bags before you add the sugar. Don’t put tea bags in a pitcher!

    • Linda Ly

      No arguments here on how you prefer to make your tea! To each his own!

    • Gayle

      No such thing as a strange way to make tea many people do things differently and tea is one of them. I also put my tea bags in water and bring to a boil but her method might also work.

    • MaidMirawyn

      Even in Georgia, it varies. I’m a multi-generational Georgia girl, and my family never boils the tea; instead, we boil then steep. But my mother-in-law, who is fourth generational Georgian, does boil; she makes double strength tea, then dilutes it. None of use simple syrup, though; we just stir in sugar while it’s still hot.

      I think the taste is smoother when you don’t boil the bags, but I firmly believe everyone should make the tea that makes them happy!

      Though my mother-in-law’s tea is so sweet that it deserves the alternate name “sugar tea!” I think she adds the maximum amount of sugar that will dissolve! LOL

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  • Mallory L. N. Johnson

    I grew up in a small town in Alabama and never knew this trick. How did my southern grannies neglect to pass along this secret? I’ll bet this is why their tea is always so much better than mine– can’t wait to give it a try.

    • Linda Ly

      LOL! Enjoy your new secret. 😉

  • Teri

    This is a good trick when you have to use tea bags, which are made from the tea crumbs at the bottom of the barrel after you’ve sifted out all the luscious dried larger leaves. (The equivelant of Folgers compared to Starbucks…) Hunt down the loose Lipton tea in a box. Steep a few tablespoons of that over steaming water, then turn off the heat. After 5-10 minutes, strain it into your pitcher, add sugar and additional water to taste. No bitterness! We Texans loooove our sweet tea too. Especially with lime instead of lemon!

  • Caleys Kitchen Garden

    I am also a tea aficionado! I am always dumping tea I steeped too long and made bitter. I will definitely be trying this soon! Thank so much for the tip!