Sunday, March 1, 2009

Nectar of the Gods: The Perfect Sweet Tea

Well...not quite. You see, perfection in food is really only an ideal. And something as dear to every one of your hearts (at least for the southerners out there) as sweet tea can be a very subjective matter. In that case, I will give you at least a few tips to get you on the right track to sweet tea nirvana.

Before I get started, I need to share with you a quote that I just found:

"It's rough. It's been rough on that food. It's different eating here than it is at the house. Ain't got no sweet tea, and ain't got no fried chicken."

—Boo Weekley, PGA golfer from Milton, Fla., interviewed by the BBC on Day 2 of the British Open, 7/20/2007

I'm sure that good sweet tea is something that most of us take for granted, but once you are deprived of it for any extended period of time, its glories cannot be extolled enough. My unofficial rule for finding restaurants that serve sweet tea is very easy: If the state doesn't include a member of the South Eastern Conference, you will likely have a hard time finding sweet tea (the two exceptions being East Texas and parts of North Carolina). States with two teams in the SEC--Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee--make the best sweet tea. Shockingly, sweet tea is not found in New Orleans. I am happy to forgive this otherwise cardinal sin, because while in NOLA, pickling your liver in any alcoholic beverage is both accepted and encouraged. Iced tea drinkers only cost restaurants money and delay the inevitable party.

By "sweet tea," we mean "sweet." According to one food technologist, some of the sweetest glasses can hit 22 Brix of sugar. That means that 22 percent of the liquid consists of dissolved sugar solids, or, to put it in more meaningful terms: close to twice what you'd find in a can of Coke. Still, there's a balance to the flavor—the tea is brewed long and strong, so it gets an astringency that can only be countered by lots of the sweet stuff.

Southerners, of course, have a taste for sugar that is demonstrably stronger than what you find up North. We like our pecan pie and pralines sweet enough to make the dentist cringe. All of the major soda companies—the Coca-Cola Co., PepsiCo, Dr Pepper—started in the South. Bourbon, that sweetest of whiskies, is from Kentucky. A mint julep, that classic Southern cocktail, is basically a whiskey'd up sweet tea, with mint, ice, simple syrup, and booze.

Excessive use of ice is also encouraged, if anything, to combat our sweltering temperatures here in the South. In an early essay about Southern cuisine published by the American Philosophical Society called Hog Meat and Cornpone: Food Habits in the Ante-Bellum South, Sam Hilliard wrote that a container of cool—not even cold—water, pulled from a nearby spring, was a delicacy at the table. Tea was mostly a drink for the upper class, and early on, it was the rich who had access to the ice that came down on ships or in wagons, at least until icehouses were built in cities. If ice was a luxury, then putting out a pitcher of ice-cold tea must have been quite a bit of hospitality.

For those of us who want to make it at home, we'll start with a few basic guidelines. Rule number 1: Tea should only come from good-quality tea bags that have been steeped in boiling water. Please avoid instant tea at all cost. It tastes like tea-flavored Kool-Aid, and has this incredibly funky aftertaste. Sun tea is equally deplorable. It's a scam, likely designed by the same person who marketed the Pet Rock in the 1970s or the official "Rachael Ray Garbage Bowl" of today. I prefer the Luzianne brand, purely for the fact that it's a more local product than Lipton. The directions on the box work alright, but I prefer to bring two cups of water to a boil, then steep 4-5 tea bags for about 5 minutes. Once this "starter" liquid has a nice mahogany color, remove the bags and pour into a pitcher. Fill with cold water and refrigerate until you're ready to drink.

Now, some of you might be a bit puzzled why I left out the sugar. I believe that the secret to the best sweet tea is to use a simple syrup. Simply take equal parts sugar and water (I'd recommend starting with a cup of each) and bring to a simmer on the stovetop. You don't have to leave it on the heat for a long time; just enough for the sugar to completely dissolve. If you want to get fancy, you can steep some thinly sliced lemons or mint leaves in the simple syrup. I'd avoid things like raspberries and mangoes--that's just blasphemous. Your syrup will keep in the fridge for a long time, and it makes a tremendous addition to any cocktails. Just pour yourself a glass of iced tea and stir in enough simple syrup for your liking. And that's it!

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