A foolproof guide to a summer staple
I am, and have always been, a coffee drinker. The 1990s, when Our Great Nation suddenly discovered there was more to good coffee than black sawdust in a grocery store can, were a great time--the period when the number of places one could get a decent espresso in Baltimore zoomed from the low single digits to at least one per neighborhood. Quality coffee thus safely established, Baltimore beverage trend-setters have lately been working the same transformation for tea.
I am late to the tea party--don't know my tisane from my rooibos--but it's evident even to me that there's a whole new world of tea varieties and flavors out there, and we're all getting used to the idea that brewing a great pot of tea requires more than dunking a Lipton's bag in some hot tap water. Since tea is not coffee, however, I haven't paid a whole lot of attention.
My ignorance regarding tea was, to my great embarrassment, graphically illustrated this past spring when I volunteered to bring the beverages for my kids' end-of-year school picnic. I rounded up some five-gallon coolers and made up giant batches of homemade lemonade (shoutout to The Joy of Cooking, 1975 edition, lemonade-for-100 recipe) and iced tea. It had been a long, long time, maybe even since childhood, since I'd made actual iced tea--hot tea, yes, and tea concentrate for kombucha, but not a pitcher of iced tea to just, you know, drink. Seriously: I couldn't really remember how one goes about it --and this was iced tea to the power of 10, as in 10 gallons (five sweet, five unsweet) of the stuff. But, I figured, it's just black tea, sugar, and water. How hard could it be?
So I basically threw a whole lotta tea bags into some really, really huge stock pots filled with water. Added some sugar. Brought everything to a boil. Cooled it down, pulled the tea bags, poured the brew into the insulated beverage dispensers, and lugged it to the party. At the end of the long, hot day, the lemonade coolers came back completely drained, but the iced tea ones were still nearly full. I understood why when I opened them up: my iced tea was, in a word, nasty. It was cloudy and bitter-tasting, and it had an oily sheen floating on top--some sort of gunk that stuck to both the inside of the coolers and the cup interiors of anyone misguided enough to drink it .
What the hell? I mean, I bake bread, roll out pasta from scratch, make my own cheese fer cryin' out loud. How is it that I screwed up something so simple as iced fucking tea? I was determined to figure out where I'd gone wrong.
I was embarrassed to even admit this snafu to food-adept friends and family members, but I started asking around about everyone's iced tea protocol. Turns out there are about as many different ways to brew iced tea as there are people who drink it, but I did glean a few consistent pointers. First and foremost: Don't fricking let the tea bags sit too long in the hot tea--that's the bullet train to bitterness. Tannins--plant polyphenols that occur naturally in Camellia sinensis, the tea plant--give brewed tea both its color and flavor. Allowing tea bags to lounge around too long brings out the astringent bitterness inherent to tannins; some people even caution against squeezing the tea bags into your tea, for this reason. (Apparently, it didn't help that I used Irish breakfast tea, one of the very darkest, strongest, and tannin-laden blends available.)
Second, the cloudiness issue. Cloudy tea tastes fine and won't hurt you, but it is simply not an attractive beverage. Turns out that putting still-warm tea into the refrigerator is the usual suspect behind opaque tea, but mine had been served room temp over ice so that was not my problem. (If this happens to you, adding more boiling water is supposed to clear things back up.) However, our water comes from a well and apparently minerals in "hard" water can react with the tea to cause cloudiness. I took somebody's Southern grandma's hint about putting in a pinch of baking soda while brewing, and voila! Crystal clear tea. Apparently, the baking soda somehow neutralizes any minerals in the water; it certainly did not seem to affect the tea's flavor.
OK, but what about the most disturbing part--the BP-style oil slick on top? Baking soda was not making that nastiness go away. Nobody I talked to had any experience with this phenomenon, but after some enlightening research into the actual chemistry of tea I realized that excess tannins were the likely culprit. Backing off from Irish breakfast dialed down the caffeine content in my iced tea, alas, but lighter--and less tannic--varieties such as orange pekoe and Darjeeling made perfectly nice tea, minus the oil slick.
After lots of experimentation I've come up with this formula for making foolproof iced tea--for me. I don't think I'll ever again attempt iced tea for 100!
6 tea bags (or 2 generous tablespoons of loose black tea)
1/2 cup sugar or other sweetener (or more to taste, or none--1/2 cup makes a barely sweet tea)
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
Bring 2 quarts of water to boil.
Place tea, baking soda, and sweetener if using in a large, heatproof glass pitcher or container.
As soon as water begins to boil, take it off heat and pour over tea.
Set timer for 15 minutes; remove tea bags (don't squeeze!).
Allow tea to cool to room temperature before placing in fridge.
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