Growing up, I didn’t realize that a lot of the food traditions we had in my family were Midwestern regionalisms. (What do you mean everyone doesn’t make a sugar cream pie during the holidays?) It wasn’t until I married a Canadian that I started to realize that the things that I thought were standards in the kitchen weren’t really all that common for everyone.
I remember early on in our marriage—it had to have been the first nice day of spring right after we were married—I said something like, “Oooh! Today is a good day for sun tea.” Craig responded by looking at me like I had two heads! Apparently, this wasn’t a thing he did growing up in Northwestern Ontario.
But here in the Midwest? You’d be hard-pressed to find a house that doesn’t have a jar of sun tea steeping out on the porch on nice summer days. Logically, I understand that tea steeped by sitting in the sun is no different from tea you make with boiling water from a kettle, but I swear you can taste the sunshine! Nothing is better on a hot summer day than an ice-cold glass of sun tea on the porch.
What exactly is sun tea?
Sun tea is an iced tea that is steeped via the heat of the sun instead of using boiling water from a kettle or stove. It is typically made with standard black teas, but can also easily be made with green tea or herbal teas.
Is it safe to make sun tea?
Some folks will steer you away from sun tea because of a bacterial risk. We’re not going to lie—because you can’t control the temperature levels when using the sun, there is a chance for bacteria to grow in the tea. I personally have been making and consuming tea this way since I was little (and folks have been cooking with the sun for centuries), but if you are concerned about bacterial growth, you can avoid any risk by bringing the tea to a rapid boil after steeping.
What kind of tea is good for sun tea?
Any tea will work, but for “standard” sun tea, you want an iced tea blend like Luzianne. Peppermint tea and green tea are also favorites in our house! For a half-gallon or eight cups of tea, you’ll need six tea bags.
Do I need a sun tea jar?
If you’ve never made sun tea before, it’s incredibly simple. All you need is a clear jar, some water, and tea. This time of year, in our area, you can pick up specific sun tea jars at pretty much every retail outlet on the planet (literally, you can find them at gas stations, grocery stores, or pharmacies). As any good Midwestern girl does, I’ve had my fair share of tea jars in my life, and I have managed to break every single one of them. One day, I’ll probably invest in a really nice, sturdy, heavy-duty jar for sun tea, but for now, I just use a half-gallon mason jar. And it works wonders.
How do I make sweet sun tea?
I like my tea just a touch sweet, so I mix up a simple syrup and stir it in after steeping. Here’s how you make simple syrup:
- Combine equal parts water and granulated or cane sugar in a saucepan over medium-high heat.
- Heat until the sugar is completely dissolved.
That’s it! You can now pour that mixture into your tea to sweeten to taste. I like my tea lightly sweet, so I use about 1/3 to 1/2 cup of simple syrup per half-gallon batch of tea. If you aren’t into sweetened tea, just skip this step completely.
If you are used to the very sweet tea you’ll find standard in the Southern U.S., you’ll probably want closer to a 3/4 to a full cup of simple syrup per half-gallon batch.
Okay, so tell me how to make sun tea!
Making sun tea couldn’t be easier. Just fill up your jar with water and the tea bags, and cap it off with the lid. Set it in a warm, sunny spot to steep. Then it’s just a matter of waiting!
How long should it steep?
Depending on the heat of the day, the strength of the sun and how strong you like your tea, it could be ready in as little as an hour, but I usually give it more like two or three out in the sunshine. It’s ready when it looks like…tea!
Pour it over ice in a mason jar (seriously, that’s the only proper way to drink sun tea—out of a canning jar) and enjoy! If you have some fresh mint or some lemon slices kicking around, put a few of those in there for a really nice, refreshing summer drink.
How do I store sun tea?
Once my tea is done steeping, I do store it in the fridge. That way, it’s super cold and ready for enjoying any time! I especially recommend it after you’ve spent all day working in the garden. Nothing tastes better.
I wish that science found more acceptance in mainstream thinking. UV radiation is one of the best ways to kill bacteria and a very prevalent program for safe drinking water around the world is to put unsafe water into a clear container and place in the sun. When the sun is unobstructed, you can sterilize water in hours. Sun tea doesn’t grow bacteria while in the sun, as long as the sun’s rays can bombard most of the liquid and the liquid is not extremely dark. For best results, tilt jar for more direct exposure and turn or shake mid way. Additionally, your recipe calls for sugar, which is a preservative. While yeast loves sugar, bacteria does not, which also makes the environment less bacteria friendly. Once the jar is no longer in the sun, that is when bacteria can grow, which is why it is refrigerated, to slow that process down. If the jar was left out and has been opened, you can end up with sugar loving yeast, leaving behind alcohol, which at high enough concentrations is also no good for bacteria. It is pretty hard to grow bacteria in sugared tea, sun tea more so due to the UV. I would be willing to bet money that if you made sun tea with two days of exposure (shakes and turns) with sugar and never opened it, it would be drinkable months later. Not suggesting anyone try that, just saying that a UV sterilized container with a preservative and then refrigerated is about as safe as it gets.