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10 Secrets for Making Sweet Tea Only People From the South Know

"The South runs on sweet tea," one of my Southern friends says. It's not only a refreshing beverage, but a cherished way of life. Here's how to do right by it!

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Pitcher and mason jar mugs filled with iced tea and lemons sitting on picnic table with red checked tablecloth
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As a New Yorker, my go-to iced tea is Diet Snapple Peach. But when I’m serving friends, I like to break out the sweet tea, and this smooth recipe, which involves stirring sugar directly into tea, has always been a winner. So imagine my surprise when a chef from North Carolina, Scott Maitlin, who owns Top of the Hill in Chapel Hill, informed me I was doing it wrong. “You can’t just add regular sugar to tea…you have to use simple syrup,” he says.

Wait. What?

And so it began: my quest to make sweet tea like a Southerner.

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lemon wedges closeup

Stick with real ingredients

The best sweet tea comes from the best ingredients. Skip convenience products like lemon juice, instant tea powder or artificial sugars and opt for fresh high-quality picks instead.

And if you want to an outside-the-box recipe, try making this strawberry lemonade smoothie.

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sugar syrup pouring into glass bowl

Simple syrup is key

“You can’t get cold tea the right amount of sweet using sugar,” says my friend, Michele Sonier, who was born and raised in Louisiana. “When you try to dissolve the sugar—or heaven forbid, artificial sweetener—nothing good will come of it.”

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Add the syrup while the tea is hot

“It’s the only way to make sure the sweetness gets totally blended,” Michele explains. So that’s why some tea steeps in simple syrup, I thought.

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Tea bags in box
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Black tea—or bust

“I think it’s against the law in Louisiana to use any brand of tea bags other than Luzianne tea,” Michele also told me. Luzianne is a black tea that’s blended especially for iced tea. It also sounds a bit like “Louisiana,” when you say it out loud, so perhaps Michele is biased. It does seem apparent that black tea is the Southern favorite for iced tea. “Don’t even try to make sweet tea with anything else,” Michele says.

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Iced tea with lemon slices, mint and ice cubes on wooden rustic background close up.
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Don’t steep the tea with lemon juice

Although some sweet tea recipes do actually call for steeping the tea along with the lemon peel, it’s unusual to steep classic Southern sweet tea with lemon juice. No one could tell me why, only that “that’s just the way it is!”

If you want to mix lemonade with iced tea, for an Arnold Palmer or this Lemonade Iced Tea, we won’t judge!

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jar of baking soda on the white background
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Add a pinch of baking soda

“A pinch of baking soda eliminates bitterness,” says Kelsey Louise, a Taste of Home Community Member. That’s why it’s part of her Smooth Sweet Tea recipe.

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Iced tea in glasses, summer background copy space
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Garnish with freshly-cut lemon

“For Southern folks, the best sweet tea is as much about hospitality and presentation as it is about the taste,” says my friend, Lynn Maggio. Lynn spent her life in Alabama before moving recently to Charleston, South Carolina. “Serve your sweet tea with fresh cut lemon wedges,” she suggests, “or sprigs of freshly picked mint.”

Speaking of mint, here is the difference between peppermint and spearmint.

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Fresh juicy lemons on a cutting board on a rustic wooden
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Remove the seeds before serving the lemon

“Lemon wedges are served on the saucer on the side of the poured tea,” Michele says. There’s a proper way to prep those lemon wedges, too. “When you cut a lemon, you always cut the pointy ends off first. Then you cut the lemon in quarters and remove the seeds,” she says. Here are some more reasons to always have a lemon on hand.

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Lemon wedges in a white dish
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Don’t drop the lemon into your tea

After you squeeze the lemon into the glass, you leave what’s left of the lemon on the side, Michele explains. “You never put a squeezed lemon into the glass.”

Wondering what to do with the lemon leftovers? Here are genius around-the-house uses for lemon.

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Iced tea with strawberries and mint.

Don’t be afraid to improvise

All these dos and don’ts might leave you with the impression that you can’t improvise at all! Not true, according to Lynn, who often makes a strawberry sweet tea by adding Stirling Strawberry Syrup instead of plain simple syrup and serving with a strawberry garnish.

Taste of Home
Originally Published on Taste of Home

Lauren Cahn
Lauren Cahn is a New York–based writer whose work has appeared regularly on Reader's Digest and in a variety of other publications since 2008. She covers life and style, popular culture, law, religion, health, fitness, yoga, entertaining and entertainment. Lauren is also an author of crime fiction, and her first full-length manuscript, "The Trust Game," was short-listed for the 2017 CLUE Award for emerging talent in the genre of suspense fiction.