Small Batch

Sweet Tea

By • July 30, 2013 • 42 Comments

It's always more fun to DIY. Every week, we'll spare you a trip to the grocery store and show you how to make small batches of great foods at home.

Today: Beth Kirby from Local Milk shows us how to make authentic Southern sweet tea.

Sweet Tea from Food52

There’s this stuff called Milo’s. You might have heard of it if you’re from below the Mason-Dixon line. It’s sweet tea, and I mean sweet tea. It’s not messing around, and from what I hear it’s good. Guilty, southern, lord-knows-what’s-in-it sort of good. I wouldn’t know, as I’ve honestly never had sweet tea out a jug. It’s never occurred to me to buy it, because it’s so easy to make.

I’ve been told my homemade sweet tea rivals the classic Milo’s, and is, dare I say, better, namely because you don’t buy it in a big plastic jug, and you know exactly what’s in it: black tea, sugar, and water. Quality control. And it actually tastes like tea. Fresh, sweet, black tea.

Sweet Tea

I was standing around in my kitchen the other day with my friend Hannah, a fellow Tennessean, and yes, we were drinking sweet tea. She was lamenting the fact that every comedian passing through Tennessee feels compelled, perhaps morally obligated, to do a bit about sweet tea: I was in a diner the other day and you Southerners and your sweet tea! Sweet tea! Sweet tea! You’re like zombies for it! Or something along those dangerously witty lines.

Sweet Tea from Food52

It isn’t very funny, we both agreed. Largely due to the fact that it’s been said a million times. Which is probably because, well, it’s true. We like the stuff. It’s a thing. I really and truly don’t remember a meal at Grandmother’s without sweet tea, but I do remember always thinking my mother was austere and odd for always ordering “Tea. Unsweet. With lots of lemon.” It always stood out in my mind because it was so abnormal, so my mother’s thing. I am not austere. I’m the girl that will stab herself in the hand for an ice cream sandwich (actually, this happened this week), and I like my tea sweet. Strong and sweet. With lots of lemon. So my mother and I have that in common, at least.

Sweet Tea from Food52

Sweet Tea

Makes 16 cups

16 cups water
16 tea bags (Lipton or Luzianne)
16 tablespoons white sugar
1 lemon, for serving (optional)

Sweet Tea from Food52

Use 1 tea bag and 1 tablespoon of sugar per cup of water. I use Lipton or Luzianne. You can be fancy if you want -- and by all means, feel free -- but old-fashioned, honest-to-God Southern sweet tea is made with one of those 99% of the time. 

Boil desired amount of water in an appropriately sized pot. I make mine 16 cups at a time in the summer. 

Sweet Tea from Food52

Remove pot from heat and toss in your tea bags. Brew it strong, 15 to 20 minutes. 

Sweet Tea from Food52

Sweeten it while it’s hot, right after you pull the tea bags out, and stir until it all dissolves. 

Sweet Tea from Food52

Chill it until it’s cold. Put ice in a drinking receptacle, preferably an old jam jar (you know, to set the mood), pour tea over ice, stick a wedge of lemon on the side, and viola! There you have it: sweet tea.  

Sweet Tea from Food52

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by Beth Kirby

Tags: small batch, DIY, sweet tea, southern, tea, Beth Kirby, Local Milk, drinks, iced tea, summer, summer drinks, how-to & diy

Comments (42)

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12 months ago Judi Koltay

How to keep tea from getting cloudy.

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11 months ago tennarose

There are two reasons black tea gets cloudy- over-steeping or enzymes on the tea (normal & natural). Assam tea has a higher likely-hood of going cloudy when over-steeped. Hope this helps!

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12 months ago Sandra Andersen

I strongly agree with soandso. For me the purpose of drinking iced tea is to have a cool, refreshing, no sugar, no calorie drink. If I want some sugar, I'll have an Arnold Palmer.

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12 months ago soandso

If you are on a diet and have to lose some weight, you can't drink all that sugar in anything, then you can put a few (4-5) bags of flavored tea in with your black tea when steeping. I prefer Celestial Seasonings Red Zinger or Orange Zinger, or a peach flavor. The additional tea flavoring will actually be such that you'll think it is sweetened, but it isn't, and it'll be much better for you, and no sugar at all!!!

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10 months ago Astro_Ayla

You could use honey

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12 months ago mary d.

My southern mother-in-law taught me to make a tea "concentrate", which saves time and allows the cooling process to start more quickly. Fill a small saucepan about 1/3 full of water, bring to a boil. Add 4 family-sized teabags and steep as desired, off the heat. Add your sugar now, while hot. Pour this into your pitcher and add enough cool water to make 8 cups-stir well. The whole process goes quicker than boiling the full amount of water-and keeps the kitchen cooler too!

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12 months ago Jill Murray

I'm from the south and that's how we've always made our tea. It's great!

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12 months ago Dorothy

I shared my recipe earlier in this thread that's very similar to yours, Mary. Great minds!

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12 months ago SaucyRedhead

I grew up in AL and I live in CA now...reading the name Milo's on this site was a complete shock and made me grin from ear to ear...thanks for that! Looking forward to trying your tea, too ;)

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12 months ago Barbdwire28

It's not Southern ice tea if it isn't Luzianne and we use the big tea bags because we go through a lot of ice tea.

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12 months ago Irenehope

I grew up on sweetened tea with lemon. Cold in the summer, hot in the winter. It seems that my NYC mom was making me sweet tea and we never knew it.

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12 months ago Donecia

I am not from the south but my parents both are my mom always made sweet tea at home and it wasn't until I was in college (in the south) that I found sweet tea in a restaurant ! lol! I love tea both sweet and non-sweet but sweet tea is comfort ! It's also great as a cocktail with apple jack and lots of lemon over ice! Lol!

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12 months ago Leah Koenig

Leah is the author of The Hadassah Everyday Cookbook on seasonal Jewish cooking.

I once accidentally ordered sweet tea at Mc Donalds (I was on a bus trip, and that's where we happened to have a rest stop...) thinking I was ordering unsweetened, brewed tea. I spit the first sip out, then threw out the whole thing - it was teeth achingly, bone shudderingly sweet, brain meltingly sweet. I have to assume this version is much better, but now I'm too scared to try sweet tea again!

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12 months ago Celty

I looove sweet tea! Especially in the summer when I can make sun tea. It always reminds me of my Grandma who always had a glass jug brewing tea on her porch in the summer. It tasted so good after playing outside those hot Missouri summers.

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12 months ago Luvtocook

Forgot to mention that add that I add fresh lemon at serving, not when I make the tea. Yummy!

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12 months ago AMY

I am southern born and bred..I have been drinking sweet tea all my life...I had to laugh at your Mothers unsweet tea...MY Mother drank hers the same way!!!!! The rest of the family just shook our heads in amazement...WHERE did she come from..HaHa...But you did forget to mention Tetley Tea...That is the one mama always used...and back in the day it was loose tea...as in NOT in a tea bag..so she would use a striner after steeping.... My daddy always got a quart mayonnaise jar full on his way out the door in the morning for his lunch...I still make mine the same way...Only now I use the family size teabags Tetley when I can find it here, or Luzianne or Lipton...It has to be one of those 3....I make a 2 qt. pitcher every night before I go to bed...Yes we southerners LOVE our strong sweet tea..I have never bought a "jug" of tea in my life....

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12 months ago Luvtocook

I live in Florida, (are we "Southerners"?) and I love sweet tea with lemon! I make it all the time with my Mr. Coffee iced-tea maker and Luzianne tea bags making it strong (as your photos) but I make simple syrup with cane sugar (about 3/4 cup sugar per pitcher: 1/3 cup water, nuke that for a minute until the sugar is fully dissolved) and add it when the tea thingie turns itself off. It's ready to drink right then an there--no chilling required. Who knew how handy these Mr. Coffee Iced-Tea makers ARE!

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12 months ago AMY

Well technically the State of fla. is in the south, but Foridians are not usually Southern...We live in Fl. right now for hubbys job and IWe being from Georgia almost felt like we were in another country when we first moved here....It is a totally different kind of "south"....Although up around the panhandle and close to the Fl. Ga. line it is very much more "Southern" than here in central Fl. where we are right now :)

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12 months ago Luvtocook

Right on, Amy!

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12 months ago Sandra Andersen

I am a Minnesotan and I have never adopted a taste for sweet tea, unless it is a flavored tea, such as raspberry or peach. Otherwise, I enjoy it just plain with a little lemon. I have never understood why someone would destroy the taste of good tea by adding sugar to it. Which is probably just what purest coffee drinkers think when they see me adding cream and sugar to my coffee.

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12 months ago AMY

And I have never understood why anybody would add "flavor" to tea such as rasberry or peach...No true southerner would ever make or drink a Flacored tea....and I do drink my coffee black with NO sugar....And we drink our tea COLD and our coffee HOT...never the other way around...At least the South that I come from...

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12 months ago Mary

I don't drink much sweet tea these days, but when I want iced tea it better be sweet. And don't tell me there's sugar on the table....it ISN'T THE SAME. I remember a 2-week trip out west where Cracker Barrel in NM was the most welcome sight I'd ever seen because SWEET TEA. And don't get me started on people who make fun of us Southerners and the fact that we call it "sweet tea". Whatev.

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12 months ago Lynnie491

I live in Georgia, but have not heard of Milo's and do not like sweet tea. I've caught a lot of flack over the years from people not-from-around-here who have heard those comedy routines. :) And when I pull through the drive thru at at fast food places and ask for UNsweet tea, they always question me.

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12 months ago Chris Oliver

This makes me a bit homesick (Texas). There's something about *real* sweet tea. Not just adding sugar to a glass of tea, but pouring a glass of sweet tea is just.... better. Yeah, this is going to be made now. I'll need a care package sent with some Luzianne.

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12 months ago Andrea Devon

This makes me think of my grandmother too; though I'm not sure if someone from Indiana would be considered truly Southern. Either way, this is grandma's tea, just the way I remember it. Lipton and all!

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12 months ago Dorothy

Tea is like coffee, some prefer it strong like your recipe, and others, like my bunch, prefer it on the weak side. My recipe is 1 gallon of water, 3 Lipton tea bags and 3/4 of a cup of sugar.

We have 2, 1-gallon pitchers going in our fridge throughout the day. I use an electric water pot to boil the water, pour it into a 4-cup Pyrex glass measuring cup over 3 Lipton tea bags tied together with paper tags removed, cover it with a saucer and let it steep for several hours. This way I always have some brewed when one of the pitchers goes empty.

When it's time to mix up a batch, I hold a fine-meshed strainer over the pitcher, which catches that filmy thing that happens sometimes and also catches the tea bags. Then I pour in the steeped tea, add 3/4 cup of sugar and stir violently (or until blended haha). I have a special wooden spoon used only for this purpose and it's earned a pretty patina over the years. I fill up the rest of the pitcher with water allowing the flow to hit the wooden spoon first so it disperses the water and keeps it from foaming.

I guess in our neck of the woods we like our tea weak as I am always asked to bring the sweet tea to gatherings. Cheers to us weaklings!

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12 months ago Beth Kirby | {local milk}

I'm sure every Southerner who reads this is going to have a different way!

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12 months ago headspace canning

I am like Dorothy, we always add some water to our tea after it is brewed. I have lived in North Carolina all my life as has my husband, and both of our families make it by steeping the tea bags in boiling water, then adding sugar, and water. It gives you that classic golden colored tea. Not too strong but with good, solid tea flavor.

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12 months ago AMY

I also have a special wooden spoon that is used ONLY for making tea...I have used that spoon and a large orange tupperware pitcher for 35 years....Honest....My daughter has said many times..."Mom you have to leave me THE tea making spoon and pitcher in the WILL" HaHa..Funny thing is she is an only child, but everyone knows not to use that long wooden spoon for ANYTHING ELSE.....and like yours it has developed a very nice dark patina over the years...Oh and my sister makes her tea on the weak side too...:)

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12 months ago Lauren G

Amy I have a special wooden spoon only for sweet tea too!! I often wonder if other people do this too :) I, and most other Southerners I know boil the sugar in with the water before steeping the tea. And I never let my Luzianne steep longer than 3-4 minutes because I don't like the bitter taste it gives off after that.

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12 months ago Marian Bull

Marian is Food52's Associate Editor.

My years spent living in North Carolina made me a sweet tea convert, but I was always too nervous about ratios to make my own. Thanks, Beth!

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12 months ago Beth Kirby | {local milk}

This is a classic sweet tea, but I don't find it cloying. As to the ratio, it's really a matter of personal preference, you can always scale back the sugar if you find it a little too sweet for your tastes. I know a lot of people that like their tea "half & half" sweet/un. For that taste you'd...naturally...just halve the sugar!

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12 months ago Marian Bull

Marian is Food52's Associate Editor.

Thanks! Always good to have options.