Recipes / Sips & Syrups

There’s a Secret Ingredient to Making the Best Southern Sweet Tea

Southern sweet tea with a secret ingredient

With temperatures soaring, nothing’s more satisfying in the dog days of summer than an icy cold, sweaty glass of sweet tea sipped on the front porch (or backyard, or poolside) on a lazy Sunday.

I first discovered sweet tea — real sweet tea, Southern style — two decades 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. How?

Baking soda neutralizes the tannins in black tea, giving it a smoother taste.

This same trick works to take the bitterness out of green tea as well; you can add a teeny pinch to a mug of hot tea as it’s steeping.

While bitterness usually happens when you brew your tea at too high of a temperature, or for too long, it’s not something you can eliminate entirely with good brewing practices.

That’s because the bitterness comes from a group of natural plant compounds in tea leaves called tannins. Specifically, these compounds are polyphenols, which give an astringent taste (think red wine), and theophylline, which give a bitter taste. The longer you brew your tea, the more tannins that are released.

Tannins are most concentrated in green tea and black tea, so even if you brew your tea just right, you’ll still taste a hint of bitterness. Baking soda, however, takes care of that!

Related: Eat Your Greens? It’s In Your Genes

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

Ingredients

For the Tea
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
8 cups hot water
4 family-sized black tea bags or 2 gallon-sized tea bags (LiptonThere's a Secret Ingredient to Making the Best Southern Sweet Tea 1 and LuzianneThere's a Secret Ingredient to Making the Best Southern Sweet Tea 2 are common brands formulated for iced tea brewing)

For the Syrup
1 cup water
3/4 cup sugar

Instructions

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-sized tea bags are equivalent to four single-serve tea bags, and gallon-sized tea bags are approximately equal to two family-sized bags.

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 and remove from heat.

Simple syrup

Remove the tea bags from your pitcher, squeezing out as much liquid as possible with tongs.

Pour in the simple syrup, stir, and let cool at room temperature. Refrigerate the tea and serve with ice.

Traditional Southern sweet tea

Sweet Tea Recipe Sources

There's a Secret Ingredient to Making the Best Southern Sweet Tea 3
Bob’s Red Mill Pure Baking Soda | Lipton Gallon-Sized Black Iced Tea Bags | Luzianne Specially-Blended Gallon-Sized Iced Tea Bags | Anthony’s Premium Organic Cane Sugar
Yield: 2 liters

Southern Sweet Tea With a Secret Ingredient

Traditional Southern sweet tea

What's the secret to smooth-tasting iced tea? A pinch of baking soda! It makes a world of difference in a pitcher of freshly brewed sweet tea by neutralizing the tannins in black tea, giving it a smoother taste.

Prep Time 1 minute
Cook Time 7 minutes
Additional Time 1 minute
Total Time 9 minutes

Ingredients

For the Tea

For the Syrup

  • 1 cup water
  • 3/4 cup sugar

Instructions

  1. Add the baking soda and just-boiled hot water to a heat-proof pitcher. Steep your tea bags for about 5 minutes.
  2. 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 and remove from heat.
  3. Remove the tea bags from your pitcher, squeezing out as much liquid as possible with tongs.
  4. Pour in the simple syrup, stir, and let cool at room temperature. Refrigerate the tea and serve with ice.

Notes

Feel free to use any kind of tea you like, though black tea is always a classic.

The Lipton and Luzianne tea bags recommended for this recipe are not the cold brew bags, but iced tea bags that still require hot water. Typically, family-sized tea bags are equivalent to four single-serve tea bags, and gallon-sized tea bags are approximately equal to two family-sized bags.

Did you make this recipe?

Please leave a comment on the blog or share a photo on Instagram

This post updated from an article that originally appeared on June 2, 2013.

Linda Ly About Author

I'm a plant lover, passionate road-tripper, and cookbook author whose expert advice and bestselling books have been featured in TIME, Outside, HGTV, and Food & Wine. The No-Waste Vegetable Cookbook is my latest book. Garden Betty is where I write about modern homesteading, farm-to-table cooking, and outdoor adventuring — all that encompass a life well-lived outdoors. After all, the secret to a good life is... Read more »

34 Comments

  • Avatar
    https://www.sweetteaproper.com/
    December 1, 2020 at 5:59 pm

    Hi mates, its enormous paragraph regarding educationand
    entirely defined, keep it up all the time.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Margie Amason
    November 15, 2020 at 12:55 pm

    Hi Linda, My name is Margie Amason n I’m originally from New Orleans, LA. Since 1961, I’ve become a Mississippian. We are from the bottom of the state, close to LA, in Waveland, MS. I’m a tea drinker. I loved your piece about the baking soda n I’m going to give it a try.
    My biggest concern is the sugar. I’ve tried Stevie from my garden, but it tastes like chlorophyll, Yuck! And, even in the store it still had an after taste. I’ve also tried RAW cane sugar. That makes a good pitcher of tea n you don’t have to use much. I’m stumped as to what to do about the sugar.
    If you have time, sure Margie, and know of anything that could be beneficial, if appreciate it. I LOVE MY ICED TEA!
    Thank you and may God bless you n yours.
    Respectfully,
    Margie

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Linda from Garden Betty
      December 22, 2020 at 6:20 pm

      Hi Margie, you could perhaps try to sweeten your tea with honey or agave syrup instead? I’ve always just used granulated white sugar, but have seen date sugar, coconut sugar, and other varieties in the store (never tried them personally, however).

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Lisaheit
    April 18, 2016 at 2:15 pm

    I have a disease called Interstitial Cystitis, it is a very painful bladder disease. Anything acidic will cause excruciating pain and lots of people have this disease. We aren’t supposed to have coffee or tea, because of the tannic acid, since it can aggravate symptoms. Now I can have both again, because of this baking soda trick. Since it neutralizes the acids, I am good to go. Thanks for this information, water gets boring after a while. This is a wonderful find, who would have thought such a simple tip could make a world of difference in someone’s life. I’m going to tell my Urologist about this, so that he can pass this information on to his other IC patients, I’m sure that they will appreciate this tip too. I’m off to make me some ice tea, yay!!!!!!!

    Reply
    • Linda Ly of Garden Betty
      Linda Ly of Garden Betty
      April 26, 2016 at 10:27 pm

      I’m so happy to hear this! Enjoy!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    NickRepublic
    February 18, 2016 at 4:03 pm

    My Grandmama taught me how to make tea by the gallon Boil 5 (1 per quart and 1 for the pot) quart size LUZIANNE tea bags for five to six minutes. Right after you turn off the heat, put a pinch (1/8 teaspoon) in the pot. It should fizz up. While tea is boiling mix 1-2 cups sugar (to taste- my Grandmama used two but that;s too sweet for even me – I use 1-1/3 to 1-1/2) in a gallon of water. Mix until sugar is thoroughly mixed (water will look clear again). After putting baking soda in tea, a bag or two may bust but use strainer when pouring boiled tea into the sugar water. If you’ve done it right, will look just a little lighter than coffee.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Tony Overcash
    November 2, 2015 at 4:23 pm

    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!!!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Margie Amason
      November 15, 2020 at 12:55 pm

      The cup of sugar n cup of Stevie could be a solution to my TOO much sugar. I gained a lot of weight a few yrs back from mega doses of steroids in my lower back. And, as a result…40 pounds ARGH!!!. And still have The back pain. Thanks! God bless u n urs!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Amanda
    February 4, 2015 at 7:42 am

    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!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Baily
    December 28, 2014 at 3:38 pm

    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.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Baily
      December 28, 2014 at 3:40 pm

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

      Reply
    • Linda Ly
      Linda Ly
      December 28, 2014 at 4:45 pm

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

      Reply
    • Avatar
      Gayle
      December 31, 2014 at 9:46 am

      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.

      Reply
    • Avatar
      MaidMirawyn
      October 20, 2015 at 2:46 pm

      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

      Reply
      • Avatar
        NickRepublic
        February 18, 2016 at 4:07 pm

        We boil, but put a pinch of baking soda in right after boiling to draw the flavor out of the tea bags.

        Reply
  • Avatar
    Mallory L. N. Johnson
    June 3, 2013 at 8:31 am

    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.

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      Linda Ly
      June 3, 2013 at 6:38 pm

      LOL! Enjoy your new secret. 😉

      Reply
    • Avatar
      Kay
      July 21, 2017 at 8:07 pm

      I’m also from Alabama. Anniston. Moved many years ago but always feels like home. Plain and simple..too much work for me.. I put the bags in a pampered chef huge measuring glass with water 3/4 full. Microwave about 6 minutes. Have sugar already in gallon tea picture…pour over sugar . stir..add cold water. Refrigerate.
      It’s that simple!! I keep a gallon drinking and another in the frig for when this runs out. I’ve tasted lots of tea and some good and bad..however I have had no complaints. I will however try the baking soda and use it forever!! Thanks for the wonderful tip!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Teri
    June 2, 2013 at 12:20 pm

    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!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Caleys Kitchen Garden
    June 2, 2013 at 8:10 am

    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!

    Reply

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