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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 tableclothShutterstock / Teri Virbickis

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 closeupHannamariah/Shutterstock

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.

Prefer lemonade? Learn how to make our Test Kitchen’s favorite recipe.

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sugar syrup pouring into glass bowlShutterstock / MaraZe

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 sugar—or heaven forbid, artificial sweetener—nothing good will come of it.” Here’s how to make simple syrup. Spoiler alert: It’s super simple.

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Selective focus steam over cooking potShutterstock / Lesterman

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. This recipe for Mom’s Tangerine Iced Tea, which comes from a reader in Mississippi, steeps the tea and then combines it with the simple syrup while both are still warm.

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Tea bags in boxShutterstock / Africa Studio

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. What does seem apparent is 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.Shutterstock / Oksana Mizina

Don’t steep the tea with lemon juice

Although some sweet tea recipes do actually call for steeping the tea along with 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 backgroundShutterstock / focal point

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.

Wondering what the difference is between baking soda and baking powder? Wonder no more, we’ve got the answer right here.

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Iced tea in glasses, summer background copy spaceShutterstock / Oleksandra Naumenko

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, don’t miss Lynn’s tips on making an authentic Mint Julep.

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Fresh juicy lemons on a cutting board on a rustic wooden Ekaterina Kondratova/Shutterstock

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.

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Lemon wedges in a white dishChristopher Elwell/Shutterstock

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 12 genius around-the-house uses for lemon rinds.

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Iced tea with strawberries and mint. Shutterstock / SHUSTIKOVA INESSA

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.

Here are 20+ more of our favorite riffs on iced tea.

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Lauren Cahn
Lauren Cahn is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared regularly in The Huffington Post as well as a variety of other publications since 2008 on such topics as life and style, popular culture, law, religion, health, fitness, yoga, entertaining and entertainment. She is also a writer of crime fiction; 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.

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