Iced tea is a perfect summer refresher. But the canned stuff you pick up at the supermarket is packed with sugar, and the fancy kind you buy at the upscale coffee shop is ridiculously expensive.
Making your own iced tea allows you to consume a lot less sugar and spend a lot less money. It also means you can experiment with all sorts of subtle and varied flavours. It's easy to freestyle with the wide array of teas available, from old-school orange pekoe to delicate tisanes. You can add fruit infusions or accent with fresh herbs such as lavender or mint.
Basically, homemade iced tea is simple -- you make some tea and then you make it cold -- but there are a few tips for getting good results.
Coldness tends to diminish the flavour of food and drink, and using a lot of ice cubes on a hot day will also lead to dilution, so you'll need to make very strong tea. You'll want to accomplish this by using a higher tea-to-water ratio, not by longer steeping, which can lead to bitterness. To keep iced tea clear, not cloudy, let it come to room temperature before you put it in the fridge.
If you want to sweeten the whole batch, you can stir in sugar or honey while the tea is hot. But if you want to let people add their own sweetener to the finished tea, you'll need to use simple syrup, as granulated sugar doesn't dissolve well in cold liquids. Not to worry: There's a reason they call it simple. Just heat one part white sugar to one part water in a small saucepan, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Cool, and then store in the fridge for up to three months. Simple syrup is also great to have on hand for summer cocktails.
The most homey homemade iced tea has to be sun tea, a solar-powered version in which tea and cold water are placed in a glass jar and left to steep outside for a few hours. This long, lazy infusion results in a mellow, mild drink that tastes less astringent than iced tea that's made with boiling water and then cooled. The method also avoids heating up your already hot kitchen by letting the sun do the work.
And most poetically, making sun tea is just one of those rituals -- like eating watermelon on the stoop or running through a sprinkler -- that calls up warm summer afternoons.
Sun tea is a time-honoured tradition, especially in the American south. Thousands of people are probably happily drinking sun tea right at this moment. Still, the food police do warn that there is a very small possibility of food-borne illness because the water in sun tea is not sufficiently heated to destroy bacteria.
You can minimize risk with a few common-sense steps. Do use a very clean glass container. Do not add sugar at the start of the brewing process, as it can encourage bacteria. Do use black tea and not herbal tea, as the caffeine in black tea helps to inhibit bacteria. Do not let the mixture sit in the sun for more than five hours. And if you see any ropy strands in the mix, a sign of bacteria development, you should discard the batch immediately.
Finally, if you want to avoid any risk -- or if it's a cool, cloudy day -- you can always make faux-sun tea in the fridge. Just increase the steeping time.
The recipes below offer two variations on traditional iced tea, and a sense of how easy it is to improvise with your favourite flavours. Or, you can stay old-school with a classic recipe for sun tea. Either way, try to brew up some homemade iced tea this summer, and just sit in the shade and enjoy.
Sun (or faux-sun) Tea
24 orange pekoe teabags
5.5 L (24 cups) cold water
3 lemons, sliced
Simple syrup, to taste
In large, clean, clear glass container with a tight-fitting lid, place tea bags and water. Place container in the sun and let sit for 2 to 4 hours (but not more than 5 hours), until tea reaches desired strength. Or place in fridge for about 6 to 8 hours, or until tea reaches desired strength. Remove tea bags. Add lemons and simple syrup to taste. If making in the sun, refrigerate to cool fully, or serve over lots of ice. Will keep in the fridge for two days.
Tester's notes: You can, of course, get carried away with fancy teas, but good old-fashioned and inexpensive orange pekoe works really well for sun tea. The long, lazy infusion yields a mellow, smooth and somehow sunny taste. This recipe makes a huge batch, but you can easily adjust the amounts up or down, to suit your container and your crowd, using a ratio of one tea bag to one cup of water.
See the notes above regarding food-safety issues when making sun tea.
Iced Green Tea with Mint and Lime
1.5 L (6 cups) water
6 green tea tea bags
125 ml (1/2 cup) fresh mint leaves, packed, plus more for garnish
2 limes, sliced
60 ml (1/4 cup) honey, or to taste
In a large pot, bring water to a boil, then remove from heat and let sit a minute or two. (Green tea should not be brewed with boiling water, which can make it bitter.) Add tea bags to water and steep for 5 to 8 minutes, then remove tea bags. Add mint leaves and let sit for 25 more minutes. Strain into a serving pitcher, discarding mint leaves. Add honey and lime slices and stir well. Cool to room temperature. Refrigerate until cold and serve over ice. Garnish with extra mint leaves.
Tester's notes: The combination of mint and citrus makes for a cool, refreshing drink. I used limes just to keep the green theme going, but you could easily use lemons.
Iced White Tea with White Peaches
3 L (12 cups) water
8 white tea tea bags
3 white peaches, fairly firm
30-60 ml (2-4 tbsp) superfine sugar, or to taste
In a large pot, bring water to a boil, then remove from heat and let sit a minute or two. (White tea should not be made with boiling water, which can make it bitter.) Add tea bags and steep 6 to 8 minutes, then remove tea bags and let cool for 45 minutes. Meanwhile, core and cut peaches into thin slices and place in a small bowl with the sugar. Let macerate until peaches release some juice and sugar is dissolved. Add to cooled tea. Refrigerate mixture until cold and serve over ice.
Tester's notes: This iced white tea has a delicate, slightly flowery taste. I used white thin-skinned peaches that were still firm enough to hold their shape.