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!
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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 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-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.
Add the baking soda and just-boiled hot water to a heat-proof pitcher.
Steep your tea bags for about 5 minutes.
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.
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.
Sweet Tea Recipe Sources
This post updated from an article that originally appeared on June 2, 2013.