Some food, some drink.
The Best Way to Make Iced Tea (A beverage public service announcement).
Iced tea is a simple pleasure that shouldn't be taken for granted. I've had enough flavorless brown-tinted swill trying to pass as drinkable in my day to know what's bad. I don't think folks inherently want to make terrible iced tea; they just need a little bit of guidance, some simple kitchen equipment, and the motivation of knowing that the next pitcher of beverage they put on the table will impress.
Note: All you visual-types should be certain to check out the spiffy how-to video companion episode to this post!
Originally, I was reserving this discussion for my microblogging exploits, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that there is a lot of iced tea out there that needs help. People, I am a self-admitted iced tea snob. I probably put down around a quart or better every day of the week, and while you could attribute the way I feel about the way I make iced tea to me being comfortable with what tastes familiar, compliments from outsiders (read: guests) have lead me to believe me otherwise.
Good iced tea isn't expensive to make, but it does require a minor investment in equipment, and a trivial amount of your attention. If you're still interested and you decide to read further, what follows is gonna seem awfully detailed for something as allegedly simple as iced tea. But y'know, this diatribe is really more of a reference piece; and I don't know too many thrillseekers out there who take the time to read a technical operations manual cover-to-cover. If you wanna take this procedure step-by-step, you can do that; however if your own tea is pretty good but maybe lacks a little something you just haven't quite figured out, then you can skim those bullet points for help.
Recipe: Jump to the detailed recipe. (or, keep reading for the gist of it) -
Using a microwave, electric kettle or whatever, heat your water to the desired temperature. Add loose tea to the French press, pour hot water over the leaves, replace the lid of the press (taking care not to yet mash the plunger) and allow to steep for 5 minutes. Press the steeped tea according to your press manufacturer's directions and pour the hot tea into your thermally-resilient pitcher; then add the remaining cold water.
To serve, pour over ice and garnish and/or flavor as you see fit.
- Ok, so the first thing you've probably noticed here is that we're using a French press. I brewed with tea bags of all varieties for years, and I can tell you that they just don't cut it.
- Another reason for using a French press is so you can use a better tea leaf. Good iced tea starts with decent loose tea; but no one's asking you to spend time rubbing elbows with hipster moms in hole-in-the-wall tea shops to acquire it. Besides as the tea is served ice-cold, you're going to reach a point of diminishing returns where subtleties in flavor are going to be borked by a cold tongue. Loose tea doesn't have to be expensive; just try a few brands, find something you like and go with it (this is what I like).
In my opinion, oxidation is the number one killer of tea quality, and the biggest potential problems bookend the process:
- Go grab a bag of black tea from your pantry and open it up. It's likely that most of what you see in there looks like dust that someone swept up off the floor of some tea warehouse in Shanghai. What you've got there is a wicked amount of surface area which translates into higher potential for oxygen to act on the tea. You're putting your iced tea at a disadvantage before it even hits the press, and this is why you should use loose tea.
- On the opposite end of the operation, after about a day's time the compounds in your finished pitcher of iced refreshment reach a point where they really start to degrade. We've all had a taste of that bad batch of the "fresh-brewed" stuff at the fountain station of fast-food establishments, and this is usually the culprit.
- Another problem with tea in general is that folks don't make it as strong as they probably should. You wouldn't drink Kool-aid without adding the sugar would ya? And I bet you'd complain plenty if the barista at you favorite coffee joint only hit your latte with one shot of caramel instead of two, huh? As relatively inexpensive as tea is, there's no reason to be stingy and rob your beverage of flavor. I use three heaping tablespoons, which happens to approximate to the measure of the scoop that came with my press. Start there, and adjust to your tastes.
- I've always used a microwave to heat my water, mainly because my wife sees a hot pot as "One more thing we gotta store in the kitchen." So, If an electric kettle is your thing (and your significant other says it's ok to have one), by all means knock yourself out.
There are thermal extremes in this process that should be paid heed. I use a stainless steel pitcher because I'm dumping a mess of ice-cold water into a pitcher that's been thoroughly heated. Most glass pitchers will shatter under such extremes, so consider a high-quality plastic or metal containment vessel.
If I might reiterate a teaching of the hot tea 1337 out there, The temperature of your water makes a huge difference in the final flavor and strength of your brew.
- Determine what the temperature of your water is, steep for a consistent amount of time every time, and adjust accordingly. I've discovered through so much trial and error that the tea I'll serve to company is best brewed with 180F water, which just happens to be the recommended temperature for procuring the flavor of many green teas.
- If I want a "sock it to me" pot for myself, then I'll get the water up to 200F, which is more in-line with what folks brew black tea traditionally. The stronger tea also seems to work better for times when a sweetener is appropriate.
- I'm not a huge fan of sweet tea for the same reasons I dislike bad unsweetened tea. In most cases, the extra sugar is like adding insult to injury. It's almost always so sweet that you can't taste the namesake of the beverage, or that last guzzle past the ice cubes is invariably a shot of undissolved sugar. If you wanna do it right, I recommend judicious use of a simple syrup, which will dissolve completely and evenly.
- Finally, I'd be amiss if I didn't talk about the water. If your tap water licks, then by all means use filtered. I've noticed that some folks have cloudy tea when brewed from tap water; likely from unfiltered dissolved solids in the water (This is an untested hypothesis. If you really wanna know, go ask my Dad; he's the hydrologist). As we've always been fortunate enough to have better than passable tap water, my personal preference is to brew with tap water, and finish with filtered water; but not because it's filtered as much as because it's ice-cold.
I am by no means a tea aficionado, but I can tell you exactly what sucks when I taste it. Proper iced tea has a bold and distinct flavor, but it still finishes clean. This means that it also plays well with other flavors. When I'm in the mood for a change of pace, I find that just a splash of cranberry or grapefruit juice takes my glass of tea in a new direction; and of course, lemon and/or mint are always decent.
I'm not one to brag, so I won't say this is the best way to make iced tea - well, yeah actually I might; but if you don't believe me, then put out a pitcher for guests on one of those lazy, sunny, backyard sort of days and see if they don't agree.