Editor’s Note: Food writer Casey Barber says to cool off from this month’s sticky heat with a glass of iced tea. Stay tuned for her July recipe selection, and for all the months that follow.
It’s the middle of the day, and your morning caffeine rush has sputtered to a slow crawl. You’re starting to slump but don’t want another turbocharged cup of coffee. Why not turn to a refreshing glass of iced tea?
“It’s a wonderful pick-me-up, but not so much of a boost that you won’t be able to sleep that night,” said Annelies Zijderveld, author of “Steeped: Recipes Infused With Tea.”
As the heat and humidity rise, iced tea seems like the perfect antidote for sticky weather. First, a quick tea primer: “Tea in general comes from the camellia sinensis plant,” Zijderveld said. “The varieties come from how the tea is processed and how long.”
Black tea is the most processed and has the most caffeine; green tea is less processed and lighter in caffeine, and white tea the least processed.
Herbal teas, on the other hand, are not technically “tea” because they are not made from the camellia sinensis leaves – and most do not contain caffeine. Chamomile tea, for example, is made from chamomile flowers, and mint tea is made from mint leaves. “We call it tisane or an infusion,” Zijderveld said, to differentiate the two types of drinks.
While you can make iced tea from any variety of tea or tisane, Zijderveld recommends two techniques to make the most flavorful cold tea. With either of these methods, you can play with different flavor combinations, such as green tea and mint tea, hibiscus tea and rooibos tea, black tea and citrus tea or jasmine tea and oolong tea.
How to make an iced tea concentrate
Iced tea concentrate is simply a stronger brew that can be diluted to your liking, similar to a cold coffee concentrate that can be cut with water or poured over ice. This method ensures that your iced tea won’t taste too weak or watery once the ice in your glass starts to melt.
To make tea concentrate, simply use twice the amount of loose-leaf tea or number of tea bags as you normally would when brewing hot tea. If you typically use one tea bag per 12 fluid ounces of water, use two bags for a stronger concentrate. Concentrates can also be scaled up for larger quantities.
To serve, you can either pour the concentrate directly over ice and allow it to dilute the tea as it melts or dilute the concentrate further with water or milk for a tea latte. Start with a 1:1 ratio of tea concentrate to water or milk and adjust to your taste.
How to make a cold tea infusion
Along the same lines as cold brew coffee, a cold tea infusion or cold brew tea is a hands-off method that can be made with any bagged or loose-leaf tea. Cold infusions are “a lot less tannic with very smooth tea flavor,” Zijderveld said, because there’s no heat involved and the tea steeps at a slow rate.
To cold brew tea, fill a jar with cold water and add tea bags or loose-leaf tea, which can be held in a tea ball or reusable muslin tea bag for easier straining. My preferred ratio is two tea bags or two teaspoons loose black tea per quart of water, but the amount can be adjusted for more delicately flavored teas such as jasmine or white tea. Seal the jar and refrigerate for at least six hours or overnight to let the tea steep.
While it may seem quicker and simpler to let the tea steep on the counter at room temperature or in the sun, it’s a potential food safety hazard, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “The one kind of iced tea I never advocate for is sun tea,” Zijderveld said. “That’s the one kind of method that I think it’s best to stay away from” due to the possibility of bacteria growing in the warm water as the tea steeps.
Letting the tea infuse in the refrigerator overnight, instead of on the counter at room temperature or in the sun, keeps the temperature of the water in a bacteria-safe zone below 40 degrees Fahrenheit (about 4 degrees Celsius).
Now that you have your ideal iced tea, you can certainly drink it straight. Or you can use it in a variety of drinks, desserts and even savory dishes.
The most famous iced tea drink (after simple sweet tea) has to be the Arnold Palmer. A half-and-half combination of iced black tea and lemonade, it’s easy to make from scratch and lends itself to a number of variations. Swap out the regular lemonade for a fruit-infused version, or add a splash of booze to enliven the drink. Add vodka to make it a John Daly, as the old golf joke goes, or make a Pimm’s Palmer with British Pimm’s No. 1 liqueur (which is gin-based).
Another low alcohol-by-volume drink with a simple half-and-half formula is the shandy, a cocktail that traditionally mixes beer with lemon-lime soda or sparkling lemonade. For a fruitier drink, think pink and mix a fruit beer or sour beer with tart hibiscus tea to make a hibiscus shandy.
There’s also a way you can have iced tea for breakfast. In “Steeped,” Zijderveld features smoothies that blend fresh fruit and ice with tea in place of milk, juice or yogurt. Try green tea in your favorite green smoothie or mild English breakfast tea in a sweet berry smoothie.
One of Zijderveld’s favorite ways to turn iced tea into a summer dessert is to make homemade ice pops. She recommends a sweetened hibiscus concentrate as a base, because “nobody says that sweet tea has to be traditional black tea,” she said. “It’s a refreshing afternoon treat that does not have caffeine and rehydrates you.” If your pop molds are large enough to accommodate fruit pieces, she recommends adding blueberries, raspberries, or sliced peaches to the pops.
Water isn’t the only liquid you can infuse with tea. Milk, cream and even yogurt will take on tea flavors when steeped. The distinctively floral bergamot flavor of Earl Grey tea infuses the custard in Earl Grey panna cotta tarts, and a chai vanilla brûlée incorporates the warmly spiced flavors of chai.
Savory tea recipes
It’s possible to make an entire meal with tea-infused elements. Let your chicken (or pork chop) drink tea to give it more flavor and moisture with a sweet tea brine. Brining isn’t just for Thanksgiving turkeys but for any lean cut of meat that has the tendency to become dry and overcooked.
Once your brined chicken is cooked, finish it off with a sweet and sticky tea glaze made by infusing juice and honey with tea. To round out the meal, serve a side salad tossed in a tea-infused vinaigrette, like a smoky lapsang souchong honey mustard dressing or a chamomile honey dressing.
Casey Barber is a food writer, illustrator and photographer; the author of “Pierogi Love: New Takes on an Old-World Comfort Food” and “Classic Snacks Made From Scratch: 70 Homemade Versions of Your Favorite Brand-Name Treats”; and editor of the website Good. Food. Stories.