Back in the years that I was growing up…and back in the backwoods where I’m from…there was always a big glass jar or pitcher of tea sitting on the back porch waiting to be enjoyed.
In fact, the very idea of sun tea, at least to me, brings back memories of childhood summers full of time spent at my grandparents, sitting out on our back porch sipping iced tea and shelling lots and lots of black-eyed peas and butterbeans, picnics and pool parties, summer holidays such as the 4th of July pool, family reunions on the beach.
And since all you hear about these days is “green living” and “energy conservation,” making iced tea using this method simply makes sense.
And even though making sun tea may seem like common sense and too simple to write a blog post about, there are some tips to take in mind…especially as the weather is thankfully getting warmer and school will finally be out for summer, thank goodness.
Although you can use any type of tea—green, white, black, herbal, loose leaf, tea bags, and so forth—to make sun tea…black tea is the commonly used type of tea made for brewing iced tea.
Luzianne and Lipton both make teabags that are supposedly “blended for ice tea”…suggesting that these teas have a better taste and texture when used to make iced tea than all the other stuff on the shelf.
But more delicate teas—such as green and oolong—and higher-quality loose-leaf teas also often taste better than using the hot brew or cold brew methods discussed earlier because the water temperature is so low that there is little risk of over-steeping the tea.
The debate between using teabags or loose leaf tea is as common as the debate between orange juice with pulp and orange juice without pulp.
Many people claim that loose leaf tea is fresher and more flavorful…or see the process of making tea as more of an art form or self-care ritual.
Personally I am a strong advocate of pre-packaged tea bags. They are faster, cheaper, more convenient, more portable….and honestly I want to know that my tea won’t have any hidden surprises like flowers or leaves or whatever when I finally do sit down to enjoy it…kinda like going to all the trouble of making homemade chicken salad and finding bones in it. I don’t dare to make chicken salad with chicken that still has the bones in it…and I don’t dare to make tea with loose leaf tea, or at least iced tea.
It is also said that the quality of loose-leaf is superior because the tea is still whole and unbroken, as opposed to being whatever is left over whenever the tea makers have finished sorting through the leaves.
Not only that, using loose-leaf tea allows you to use as much or as little tea as you like…which I believe is actually not a problem in making tea with teabags as long as you get your water temperature and steeping time where you end up with tea that tastes exactly like you want it to.
Another benefit to using loose leaf tea is perhaps that you can blend different types of tea. Personally I think that the people who create teabags are far smarter than I am and know which blends and which flavors to group together to make the best tea…unless it comes to sweetening tea or using fruit afterwards to make it even more tempting…(more on this later)…
Tea leaves and teabags will both release their flavor into liquid—regardless if that liquid is hot, cold, or somewhere in between. Steeping is the process of making tea with hot water. Infusion is the process of making tea with cold water.
Steeping your tea in hot water will allow the tea to release its flavor faster than infusing your tea in cold or lukewarm water, resulting in a more intense flavor and deeper color.
The main advantage of making sun tea is that you can make a large batch of iced without having to turn on your stovetop. Not only that, but since the water temperature is so low, there is little risk of over-steeping the tea…meaning that more delicate—such as green tea and oolong—and higher-quality loose-leaf teas will taste better in the long run.
Also making sun tea will keep the tea at eye level so that you can easily check your tea to see if it’s finished brewing by simply looking at its color.
To make sun tea, first fill a large glass pitcher or jar with water. Then add your tea—four teabags per quart…eight teabags per gallon of water. Cover. Set the container out in the sun. As the sun warms the water, the tea will slowly release its flavor.
Let the tea steep for at least two hours…until the tea is the color and flavor that you prefer.
As far as storing your iced tea, it’s best to store iced tea in a glass or stainless-steel container, not a plastic container. Keep your iced tea in the fridge, covered tightly with a lid. This will keep the tea from fermenting or breeding bacteria.
If you add sweetener to your iced tea…(duh, I’m from Mississippi…is that even a question)…the CDC recommends drinking it within eight hours, but unsweetened tea is actually still good to drink for three to four days, even though it will start losing its flavor after the first 24 hours.
Is Unsweeted Tea Really Even an Option?
While many people actually enjoy unsweetened tea, in Mississippi, or if you’re from Mississippi, or any of the other states in the true Deep South, we will look at whoever asks us whether we want our tea sweetened or unsweetened as totally strange.
Simply put, we honestly believe that tea with nothing added to it is simply colored water…not fit to drink. At least add sugar or some type of sweetener to give it some flavor.
Speaking of sugar, don’t you hate it when a restaurant only serves unsweetened tea and tells you that you can sweeten it yourself. Don’t they know that sugar simply doesn’t dissolve in cold liquids.
Because you are not heating up your water, most sweeteners will not dissolve in your tea.
So the best way to sweeten your tea is with liquid sweetener—such as maple syrup…(think of the movie Elf)…agave nectar…or honey. These options will all dissolve, even in cold water.
How much sweetener you use depends on how sweet you like your tea. Start by adding ¼C at a time and keep adding more until you get it exactly how you want it.
Another way to sweeten your tea is to make a simple syrup.
Simple syrup is a common ingredient many refreshing summer cocktails—including mojitos, mint juleps, daiquiris, Tom Collins, whisky
sours, and Ramos gin fizzes—and works well in any chilled drink calling for a dash of sweetness.
Simple syrup will dissolve in cold liquid and will blend in smoothly and easily, unlike the grains of sugar that collect at the bottom of a glass of iced tea.,
Sure, you could buy simple syrup at a liquor store or gourmet store…but at $5 to $8 for a small bottle…why buy it when you already have sugar and water at home in abundance and will only take a few minutes to make.
To make your own simply syrup, simply combine 1C sugar and 1C water in a small saucepan. Simmer over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the sugar is completely dissolved. Then let the mixture before decanting into a clean container with a tight-fitting lid.
The simple syrup will stay good for several weeks if kept in the fridge.
Other things to consider when making your simple syrup.
Swapping the granulated sugar for brown sugar is great for making rum drinks because it will give your syrup, but using brown sugar is not so good for gin-based cocktails because using brown sugar will give the clear liquid a brownish tint.
To make a thicker, heavier syrup, use 2C sugar and 1C water.
To make simple sugar without having to heat it up, combine equal parts ultrafine…aka superfine or caster sugar—not confectioners or powdered—in a bottle with a tight-fitting lid or cork, then shake the mixture vigorously…then allow the sugar to settle and shake the mixture again briefly.
Adding aromatics—such as fresh mint leaves, lemon or lime zest (ad/or juice), vanilla pods, or fresh peeled and sliced ginger root—to the hot mixture once the sugar has dissolved will give your simple syrup even flavor and zip. After making sure that the “aromatics” are completely submerged in the syrup, remove the pan from heat and allow the mixture to steep for about thirty minutes. Then filter out and discard all solids and pour the syrup through a tightly woven mesh strainer.
Regardless which sweetener you do end up using, always wait to add the sweetener after removing the tea bags and just before serving.
Store finished tea in the fridge for up to one week….
But Is Making Sun Tea Actually Safe?
So if sun tea so easy and allows you to make so much at one time, why do most people not make it this way any more?
Perhaps because we’ve forgotten just how easy it is?
Or perhaps we’ve been scared away from making tea this way because it supposedly increases the amount of bacteria commonly found in fresh water, Alcaligenes viscolactis.
In order to kill off this bacteria, the temperature of the tea supposedly should reach no more than 130°…the ideal temperature for encouraging growth.
Perhaps the safest way to make sun tea would let your water sit out in the sun for a couple of hours before adding the teabags into the water.
But if you ever see ropey-looking strands or any other unusual-looking particles, you probably need to not take chances…throw this batch of tea away, clean your container out thoroughly and try again.
Many people try to minimize this risk by first sterilizing the tea bags—pouring enough boiling water over the tea bags to get the tea bags completely wet.