Iced tea is as American as jazz music and the cotton gin. In the South, where hot, sultry days create a languid pace of life, ice-cold sweetened black tea washes down barbecue, welcomes guests, and caffeinates and cools lunching ladies. And you can be sure Scarlett O’Hara didn’t rely on smoothies to provide fortitude until cocktail hour. No ma’am.
Legend has it iced tea was invented during the World’s Fair in St. Louis in 1904, when a tea plantation owner decided to modify his product to suit the day’s sweltering heat. He poured standard tea through iced pipes and the resulting cold drink became a hot commodity. It’s a good story, but in reality, women in the South made iced tea decades prior, brewing strong batches of orange pekoe, storing the liquid in the ice chest, then serving it in goblets filled with cracked ice. Slices of lemon were a must. Those women understood an enduring truth: Despite its seeming simplicity, making good iced tea requires a deft hand. Bitter, cloudy or watery iced tea has no place at the table. “Very few understand the art of making iced tea,” pointed out The Successful Housekeeper in 1884. “Pour the scalding hot tea on a goblet of ice lumped in, and as the ice melts the tea is weak, insipid and a libel on its name.”
Traditional American iced tea is made from black tea leaves (orange pekoe still rules in the South), but green and herbal teas have become common alternatives. Blends—think jasmine-orange-vanilla or apple-mango black tea—are also popular. Variations extend beyond tea flavors. Garnishes, brewing methods, sweeteners and additions (such as sparkling sodas, juices, liquors and condensed milk) make today’s iced tea delightfully adaptable.
However you take your iced tea, there are some rules to follow for the best results. First, when making iced tea at home, give yourself plenty of lead time. Most recipes require a few hours of chilling in the fridge. To begin, decide if you want your tea served over ice or straight up. Since melting ice will dilute the final drink, the on-the-rocks version requires a tea concentrate, a stronger version of what you’d drink hot. In the final minutes before serving, you’ll place the ice in a glass then pour the concentrate over top.
If you prefer a simple chilled tea without ice cubes, served in, say, small ceramic teacups, simply place normally brewed tea in the fridge after brewing, allowing it to cool to room temperature. This method transforms leftover hot tea into a refreshing drink for summer, says Linda Villano of SerendipiTea. “The flavor won’t be a full as a tea prepared hot with the intention of icing,” she says, “but it’s still a good way to make an easy, refreshing drink.”
Even though she hails from New York, Villano follows the southern tradition of refrigerating her iced tea in the pitcher she’ll use for serving—a glass pitcher, never plastic, to preserve the tea’s flavor. “Teas are finicky and sensitive and are going to take on a little bit the flavors surrounding them,” Villano says. If you’re worried about unwanted flavors floating around the fridge, chill tea in a sealed container, such as a mason jar.
When making iced tea, the fresher the better. You can store it in the fridge, sans ice, for two or three days at the most. Clarity is also key. Good iced tea is clear, not cloudy. Avoid opacity by cooling brewed tea completely before placing it in the fridge, which applies to both hot-brewing and cold-brewing methods. If for some reason the final chilled tea still comes out cloudy (hard water can cause cloudiness), add a little hot water to the tea before serving and cross your fingers.
Experiment with all types of teas to discover your favorite chilled variety. For example, if you love the ritual of preparing a pot full of high-grade green tea, the ice-infusion method on page 54 can make a cooling summertime alternative. If you’re making a big batch to accompany your next cookout, you’re probably better off with some no-fuss cold-brewed tea. And feel free to add your own touches to whichever method you choose. For Villano, the process provides an excuse to head outdoors. “Before I serve any iced tea, I like to run out to the garden and clip some fresh rosemary, basil, mint leaves or thyme for garnish,” she says. “Everyone uses a lemon wedge, but there’s so much more you can do.”
Hot-Brewed Iced Tea
This basic brewing method creates a tea concentrate, essential for tea served over ice. Tinkering with ingredient amounts will vary strength and sweetness, but beware of over-steeping, which creates excessive bitterness. To make a stronger tea, increase the amount of tea leaves or bags (premium-quality bags only) or reduce the amount of water.
For a caffeine-free version, use the same ratio of herbal tea to create a tisane (any tea made with ingredients other than leaves from the Camellia sinensis tea bush). Herbal blends are more forgiving than black teas, says Linda Villano of SerendipiTea, because they won’t become increasingly bitter with steeping, but will simply increase the intensity of flavors.
1 oz. loose tea or premium-quality teabags
1/2 gallon water
Lemon or herb garnish (optional)
Boil water in large, non-reactive saucepan. Remove from heat. Add loose tea or teabags and cover. Steep for no more than 5 minutes. If using bags, remove them without squeezing them, which creates bitterness, and pour tea into a container or pitcher. If using loose tea, pour hot liquid through a strainer or cheesecloth into container. Discard leaves. Add sweetener, if desired, to taste. Cool tea completely before placing in the refrigerator to chill. Serve by pouring tea into glasses filled with ice and garnish. Makes 1/2 gallon.
Sebastian Beckwith, co-owner of the Connecticut-based online tea store In Pursuit of Tea, has traveled extensively in Asia to source his company’s teas. While there, he discovered that locals in Japan enjoyed this method of brewing cold tea, in which ice cubes and tea leaves commingle at room temperature, gently coaxing the purest flavors from the leaves. The result is a sweet grassy flavor not found in hot tea.
Beckwith warns that this method won’t produce a pitcher of tea, but rather small, concentrated doses of tea with intense flavors. “Ice infusions are aesthetically beautiful and require patience,” he says, adding that because of the amount of time required to make an ice infusion, locals make them at home and never at restaurants or cafés. Also, the quality of the tea used matters more than with other iced tea brewing methods; Beckwith suggests fine sencha and gyokuro green teas. “With higher-grade teas, you’ll be able to experience umami and sweetness simultaneously,” he says.
1–2 Tbsp. green tea leaves
2–6 ice cubes made from filtered water
Place tea leaves in a small (4–8 oz.) glass or ceramic teapot. Fill the pot with ice cubes and let sit—preferably somewhere sunny and warm—until ice has melted. Time will vary depending on air temperature. Carefully pour liquid into teacups, being careful to keep leaves in the teapot. Or pour the liquid through a filter into cups and serve. Serve in small, traditional Japanese teacups. Makes 1–2 servings.
Cold-Brewed Iced Tea
Even simpler than the hot-brew method, this technique, adapted from the book Iced Tea by Fred Thompson, produces a similar concentrate for serving chilled tea over ice. This method can also be used to make “sun tea,” which involves using direct sunlight to steep tea in cold water.
Cold-brewing removes less caffeine from tea leaves than hot brewing and also works well for tisanes. For sweetening, Thompson recommends using superfine sugar or simple syrup. There are brewing pitchers made specifically for cold brewing. Bodum, for example, makes a good one called the Biasca Iced Tea Jug.
1 gallon cold water
3 Tbsp. tea leaves or herbal tea
1 cup superfine sugar or simple syrup (optional)
Lemon wedge or fresh herb garnish (optional)
Fill a 1-gallon glass container with cold water. Add tea leaves, cover tightly and shake to combine. Let sit overnight in the refrigerator or place in full sunlight for 3 to 4 hours. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer into a clean container and stir in sugar, if desired, until dissolved. Chill and serve over ice. Garnish. Makes 1 gallon.