An unmistakable symbol of summer when I was a kid was the jar of sun tea steeping out back. Sun tea is simply brewed by the heat of the sun — some say it results in a milder, less bitter brew. And, because sun tea uses solar energy instead of the heat from your stove, it has the added advantage of keeping your kitchen cool on a sweltering summer day.
How to Make It — Place 4-6 tea bags plus 8 cups (2 quarts) of filtered water in a glass jar and set in a sunny spot for 2-4 hours. To finish, remove the tea bags, sweeten as desired, add ice, and garnish with fresh mint leaves or a slice of lemon. Refrigerate promptly and use within 24-48 hours.
Alternatives to the Sun Tea Method
Refrigerator Method: Follow instructions for sun tea, except place the glass jar in the refrigerator for at least 5 hours, or overnight. To finish, remove the tea bags, sweeten as desired, add ice, garnish and serve. Refrigerate promptly and use within 24-48 hours.
Boiled Water Method: Place 4-6 tea bags in a glass or ceramic container, pour 8 cups (2 quarts) of boiling water over the tea bags, allow to steep for 3-5 minutes, remove tea bags, sweeten or garnish as desired, add ice and serve. Since the tea will be hot, it may be chilled in the refrigerator or by placing the container in a cold water bath before serving. Another option is to prepare a tea concentrate — reduce the amount of boiling water used by one-half and top up with an equal amount of cold water or ice cubes. Refrigerate promptly and use within 24-48 hours.
Additional Tips for Iced Tea
- Traditionally, iced tea is made with black tea, such as orange pekoe, however, other types of tea may be used. Experiment and find one that works for you. Some advise against using herbal teas when making sun tea — the theory is that black tea has anti-bacterial properties which may help reduce any risk of bacterial contamination.
- Remember, the ice cubes will dilute the tea. Experiment with different ratios of tea to water when brewing to find your ideal strength tea.
- When making sun tea use filtered, bottled, or boiled water to reduce the risk of waterborne bacteria. If using boiled water allow it to cool before using.
- Do not allow tea to stand at room temperature for more than 8 hours — if that jar of sun tea has been steeping outside all day (or night) toss it! Use all tea within 24-48 hours.
- Sweeten after brewing, not before.
- Do not drink if tea appears cloudy or has an off-odor. Tea should be crystal clear and the only thing floating in it should be ice cubes and whatever sweetener or garnish you have added.
A Note About Food Safety
As with any food product, there is risk of bacterial contamination if subject to improper preparation, handling, or storage. In 1996, the CDC issued a report on bacterial contamination of iced tea and made recommendations to reduce risk — this report sparked all kinds of controversy over sun tea (just do a web search), however, the fact is the report applies to all types of iced tea. Bacteria can be present in the water, on the tea leaves, or in equipment used to make or store the tea.
- Start with clean equipment. Pay special attention to dispenser type containers since bacteria can hide in the spigot. If possible, do not use this type of container or use one that can be easily dismantled for cleaning.
- Brew tea at 195 degrees for 3-5 minutes. Sun tea has a higher theoretical risk of bacterial contamination because the tea is brewed at a low temperature (any bacteria present in the water, tea, or on the equipment are more likely to survive and multiply).
- Store tea for no longer than 8 hours (at room temperature), or refrigerate promptly.
General References and Further Reading:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC Memo on Bacterial Contamination of Iced Tea. January 10, 1996.
Burningham, Lucy. Perfect Iced Tea: Cold Comfort. Imbibe, July/August 2009.