Cold brew or hot brew? Sweetened or unsweetened? Is there a way to make the perfect iced tea?
As summer approaches, all my thoughts turn to cool and refreshing drinks.
I’m a pretty good hand at cold coffee, but recently I’ve realized that I don’t always want the intensity of a bitter, milky drink – sometimes I want something slightly lighter and sweeter, like iced tea.
I started to wonder, is there an optimal way to make iced tea?
So I did a deep dive into the art of making iced tea, and this is what I found.
Hot Brewed or Cold Brewed Iced Tea
There are essentially two ways to make iced tea. The first, the hot brew, is made by steeping tea bags in hot water, and then letting it cool. For cold brew tea, the tea is steeped in cold water for a longer period of time until the tea flavor is extracted.
Both methods will produce a great glass of iced tea, and each has its own advantages and disadvantages. Hot brewed iced tea is unfussy and quick to make. It produces a robust tea that can get slightly bitter if steeped for too long.
The cold brew method, on the other hand, produces a smoother, lighter tea, without the tendency towards astringency. One of the disadvantages of the cold brew method, however, is time. Recipes vary, but a cold brew could steep anywhere from 3 hours to a whopping 36 hours. It’s a plan-ahead sort of iced tea. Another disadvantage to the cold brew method is that the tea to water ratio is a bit higher than the ratio for hot brewed tea, which could get more expensive over time. (But don’t let these disadvantages deter you from trying to cold brew your tea! For many, the advantages make it worth the extra time and money!)
The Science of Tea
So how does it work? What is the science behind the differences between hot-brewed iced tea and cold-brewed iced tea?
Tea leaves are molecular solids preserved by a moisture-removing process – in other words, they’ve been dried. When you brew tea, you are reintroducing moisture into the mix, and as that happens, some of the solids begin to dissolve, infusing the water with flavor.
Hot water molecules move fast – that’s why boiling water rolls and bubbles. So when hot water is poured over tea, the solids begin to dissolve relatively quickly, and all at once – big and small molecules alike. But when you pour cold water over tea, the molecules dissolve more slowly-first the smaller ones, like carbohydrates and amino acids, which are the sources of sweetness and other flavors in the tea, and then the larger ones, like caffeine.
This is the reason that hot-brewed iced tea can be somewhat more intense than cold-brewed iced tea: its flavor comes with a bang- all at once – whereas the flavor of cold-brewed iced tea comes in more slowly.
Knowing the science of how tea brewing works can help you decide what type of iced tea you want to make.
The Basics: Methods and Ratios
The internet is full of recipes for iced tea and it can get a little overwhelming. Luckily, I’ve looked through them so you don’t have to.
The methods for making iced tea are pretty uniform. To make hot-brewed iced tea, place 1 teabag per cup of water into a heat-proof bowl, jar, or other receptacle. Bring water to a boil, and then pour it over the tea bags. Let the tea steep for 3-5 minutes, depending on how strong you want the final result, and then remove. Allow the brewed tea to cool, and then add in any additional components such as sweetener, or lemon (more on those below). Transfer to a pitcher, and serve over ice.
To make cold-brewed iced tea, place 2 tea bags per cup of water in a pitcher. Pour cold or room temperature water over the tea bags. Place the pitcher in the refrigerator and steep for at least 8 hours, or overnight. The next morning, remove the tea bags from the pitcher and add in any additional components such as sweetener or lemon. Serve over ice.
How to Make Iced Tea: Variations on a Theme
There are two additional, less common ways to make iced tea. The first is sun tea and the second is southern sweet tea.
Sun tea is very much like a cold brew, except it is left to steep in a sunny spot for about 6 hours, as opposed to a longer steep in the fridge. Another important thing to know about sun tea is that though it is made with cool water, the tea bags should be briefly soaked in just a bit of boiling water so that they are sterilized before adding in the cool water. Bacteria love lukewarm water.
Southern sweet tea is a veritable tradition in the American south. Like many folk recipes, each family seems to have its own secret methods and recipes for making it. One recipe, from Sawyer Ridge Farm, calls for 6 black tea bags per gallon of water. Bring the water to a boil, and then turn off the heat and let the tea steep for 4 hours. Remove the tea bags. Then add one and a half cups of sugar, stirring to dissolve. Cool completely and serve over ice.
Iced Tea Add-Ins
Some people prefer their tea unsweetened, but the trick for those who prefer sweetened tea is to use a sugar syrup, or another type of liquid sweetener. Regular sugar will not dissolve properly in cold water.
To make a sugar syrup, put a 1:1 ratio of sugar and water in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil and then lower the heat. Let the mixture simmer for a few minutes, stirring occasionally, until all the sugar has dissolved into the water. Let cool and use.
Other potential additions are lemon slices or other citrus fruits; herbs such as mint or lemon verbena are also a good addition; and summer fruits like peaches, nectarines, and berries also add something special to a pitcher of iced tea.
Another way to add variety to your iced tea mix, is to use different types of tea – such as green tea, or white tea, or even an herbal infusion. Just be aware that green tea and white tea are best with shorter steeping times – just a few minutes for a hot brew, and 4-6 hours for a cold brew.
The Best Way to Make Iced Tea
The best way to make iced tea is the way that works for you. Looking for something robust, full, and quick to drink? A hot brew is the way to go. Looking for something lighter, sweeter, and more floral? If you have time, go with a cold brew. If you want to try something a little bit different, you can experiment with sun tea or southern sweet tea, or let your creativity run wild with flavor additives of tea varieties.
Whatever method you choose, find your favorite spot in the sun and enjoy.
Check Is Tea Good For You And Learn More about Tea.