Perfect Iced Tea

Texans love their iced tea.

Texans love their iced tea. We are not fanatics about it, mainly because we pretty much take for granted being able to get a good glass of tea, properly served, 365 days a year at most any restaurant. And, yes, like all southerners, we drink it year round, not just when summer is searing, but when the snow flies, too.

I've been thinking of writing about iced tea for some time, but have been putting it off for one reason or another. We may all love it, but that does not necessarily mean that we all know how to make it. However, the recent appearance of television ads for a new iced tea concentrate ("New! Easier!"), that you dump into a pitcher of water brought me to my feet and onto the virtual soapbox.

I have traveled outside the southern states enough to know that, for lots of people and restaurants, the preparation of iced tea is a puzzle that has yet to be solved. There are some national chain restaurants (Dallas-born Chili's, for instance) where you can usually get a decent glass of iced tea served with a nice lemon wedge. But there remain so many establishments that serve up a small glass containing a liquid that is barely amber in color with a few fast-melting ice cubes and, worst of all, a thin circle of lemon perched on the rim of the glass.

Canada, well, Ontario anyway, has largely thrown up its hands in bewilderment. They serve you a small glass of tea, only they don't mention that the tea came from a can and is presweetened. You innocently add sugar and try to squeeze that little lemon circle (impossible task), stir, and your toes curl up at the first sip.

Well, I don't mean to pick on Canada or any non-southern state. I just want to impress upon our readers, many of whom are north of the Mason-Dixon and west of El Paso, that making great iced tea is a simple thing. If you can boil water and follow a few instructions, you can do it.

Bear in mind that these instructions are not the result of any exhaustive study performed in corporate test kitchens. Rather, they result from my 30-plus years of making tea in my own kitchen, practically every day. I'll start by telling you how to do it, and follow up with a few tips.

How To Make Iced Tea

To make one and one-half quarts of iced tea, put a quart (that's 4 cups) of fresh, cold water in a teapot or pan or whatever and bring it to a boil. When the water comes to a boil, pour it over 5 small tea bags in a heatproof container. Don't gently pour; let it really splash down on the tea bags. Set the container aside and allow the tea to steep for at least an hour. (Actually you can let it steep for hours, overnight even, and it's just fine.) Then fish the teabags out. You can squeeze them to get that last drop of flavor. If you want "sweet tea," add a scant ¾ cup of sugar and stir it until dissolved. Then add two more cups of cold water, stir, and chill. You'll have enough to refresh and satisfy several people.

Now, about the lemon. The purpose of lemon is not merely to make the glass look attractive. For most serious iced tea drinkers, lemon is a necessary ingredient. So you cut a lemon into eight wedges, and serve a wedge with each glass. You see, Canada or Michigan or Rhode Island, a wedge can be squeezed. A lemon circle collapses on itself, resulting in pulp up to your elbows.

National Iced Tea Day is June 10.

Best Iced Tea

  • For iced tea, use only orange pekoe. I've always used Lipton, and keep meaning to try other brands (Luzianne, for instance), but I keep reaching for the Lipton red and yellow box.
  • For the absolute best results, use a glass or glazed pitcher that can handle having boiling water poured into it. Plastic and metal containers may be able to take the heat, but they often impart flavors that interfere with the best tea taste.
  • Tie your teabags together so they'll be easier to remove from the pitcher.
  • Fresh tea is the best tea. Don't try and hold it over in the refrigerator for days. Pour it out and make fresh.
  • The amount of sugar called for in my instructions suits my personal taste and, come to think of it, the tastes of my family and guests. However, you may like your tea more or less sweet and, if so, adjust the sugar accordingly.
  • Make sure your tea is chilled before you serve it. If you add ice cubes to warm or even room temperature tea, they'll just melt and dilute the tea. And, by all means, use ice cubes rather than chipped or crushed ice to keep the melting to a minimum.
  • About family-size tea bags: The big tea bags are three and a half times the size of the little ones (7 grams, as opposed to 2 grams). I'll let you do the math. I use the regular tea bags because I find that five of them (which would be 10 grams) are perfect for one and one-half quarts of tea, which is what I usually make every day.

Okay, I've stepped off the soapbox. Now that you know how to make a delicious pitcher of iced tea, why not get out to the kitchen, put the teapot on and count out your teabags?

I'll conclude by apologizing to Canada for any remarks that may have offended. Next time you visit Texas, you can come to my house, have a downright delicious glass of iced tea, and poke fun at my complete ignorance of curling, eh?