Finally it's warm enough outside to drink iced tea! We all know how easy it is to brew sunshine tea, using a jar and some teabags left steeping in the sun. But there's actually some science to making really good sunshine tea, tea that has the best taste and most health benefits.
For tea is a health food: tonic and yet calming, cleansing, saturated with life-prolonging compounds. Made fresh daily and handled correctly, the flavor of sunshine tea is crisp and the liquid is clear. Done the wrong way, iced tea has a musty or even moldy taste and can even look cloudy or slightly oily. Yuck.
For starters, the building blocks of iced tea are the teas you use, and in the proper proportions. I never make more than a quart in one batch, although if company is expected I will make up two quart Mason jars of tea, rather than one half-gallon batch. Sunshine tea has a short shelf-life, and leftover tea quickly loses its great taste; there's invariably too much leftover tea with a half-gallon batch in a two-person household.
In a quart jar I generally use one jumbo made-for-iced-tea teabag, plus one regular-size teabag that has some flavor, like Constant Comment, Russian spiced tea, or Jasmine tea…or if there's no flavored tea on hand I use two jumbo teabags or three to four regular size bags. And then I add either a teabag or two of mint tea or if the mint in my garden is big enough, a sprig of mint. I might add a sprig of lemon balm or other fresh sweet herb too. Using some green tea in the mix can add healthful properties.
Always use a lot of tea bags to a quart of water to get the full-strength experience. There's a reason to use all that tea or even more. For perfection, sunshine tea must be poured into a tall glass of ice, and the melting ice will soon dilute the tea. So start with a strong tea.
I find that Asian grocery stores have the widest and most economical selection of green, black, and flavored teas.
Water: Use room-temperature filtered water, or let your tap water sit in an open container overnight to "de-gas" and lose any residual taste of chlorine; that goes mostly for urban and suburban water systems where chlorine is part of sanitation treatment. Using filtered water assures that you will only taste the tea (and any sweetener or lemon slices).
The actual "making" step is simple. Let the tea bag strings dangle outside the jar, fill the jar with water, screw on a lid, and then set the jar in the sun. I like making sunshine tea as soon as the morning sun has burned off the dew, and I set the jar on a concrete step where it can warm up fast for the steeping tea.
Leave the tea outside only half an hour or at most an hour, even if the weather is cloudy. When the color is like, well, dark tea, bring it in, squeeze the tea bags to release the last bit of concentrated flavor, and then dispose of them. Re-seal the jar and put the tea in the fridge and store it there. That quart of tea I make in the morning is a daily dose for two of us.
Tea will begin to ferment if left long enough, sometimes in just a few days, especially if it has been sweetened, and that process can impart the unpleasant taste.
Now as far as sweeteners, I don't use any at all, just a slice of lemon. Even though I have lived in the South for more than 30 years, I've never developed a taste for "sweet tea," which is the default beverage of the summertime South. There's so much sugar melted into it that I can't taste the tea at all.
Nan K. Chase is the author of Eat Your Yard! Edible trees, shrubs, vines, herbs and flowers for your landscape. She has an actual tea bush, Camillia sinensis, growing in her yard in Asheville, N.C., as an experiment in urban "tough love" gardening.