By Cassie Johnston
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Growing up, I didn’t realize a lot of the food traditions we had in my family were regionalisms. It wasn’t until I married a cute boy from the Great White North that I started to realize that the things that I thought were standards in the kitchen, weren’t really all that common for everyone. It’s been a fun journey to introduce Craig to regional foodstuffs that I grew up with (he’s totally a pork tenderloin sandwich fan, now) and vice versa.
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.” To which he replied by looking at me like I had two heads. Apparently, sun tea 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 it tastes different. I swear you can taste the sunshine. And, hey, anytime I don’t have to heat up the kitchen, I’m a fan.
Some folks will steer you away from sun tea because of a bacterial risk. And while yes, it’s true that the water never gets hot enough in the sun to kill any bacteria hanging out in the water, jar, or the tea bags—that kind of thing has never been a concern to me. And, while I understand this is purely anecdotal, I can tell you that I’ve been drinking sun tea every summer for my entire time here on this planet (okay, maybe not that first year), and I’ve never gotten sick off of it. And you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who has. Don’t fear the tea, friends.
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 sun 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.
I like my tea just a touch sweet, so I mix up a simple syrup before steeping. Into my half-gallon jar goes 1/3 cup of sugar. If you’re a Southerner, you’ll probably need half to a full cup of sugar to get the standard, teeth-rotting, Southern sweet tea. If you aren’t into sweetened tea, just skip this step completely.
And then I pour in about a cup of piping hot water from the tap. Our tap gets hot enough to dissolve sugar, but if yours doesn’t, you could just put in some boiling water. Stir to dissolve.
Then, I get to unwrapping tea bags. I use six tea bags for my half-gallon jar. And I like this Newman’s Own black tea, but you can use whatever you like. I actually really like making sun green tea, too, because the water never gets hot enough to bring out that bitter quality that green tea sometimes has.
Gather up all the tea bags by the tag, and stick them into the jar, making sure to hold onto the tags so they don’t slip in.
And then head over to the faucet, and fill the jar up the rest of the way with cold water. Screw on the lid (making sure the tags of the tea bags are on the outside of the lid), and put it in a sunny spot outside. I like the railing of our back deck. Partially because it’s nice and sunny, but also partially because I can see it right outside the door in my kitchen when I walk by. I’ve been known to forget about a jar or two of sun tea in my life.
Depending on the heat of the day, the strength of the sun and how strong you like your tea, it could be as 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 kicking around, put a few of those leaves in there for a really nice, refreshing summer drink.
Once my tea is done steeping, I do store it in the fridge—it will go bad if you let it sit out on the counter. Plus, that way it’s super cold and ready for enjoying anytime! I especially recommend it after you’ve spent all day working in the garden. Nothing tastes better.
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Up here in Michigan, my mom used to make it when I was growing up. Then she stopped, due to “they” saying it’s not good for you. I might have to try it again sometime though.
I’ve wanted to try making sun tea for a while now. I live in the sunny South lands, but I think I’ll just stick with your half cup sugar rec. I never liked that too-sweet tea.
This is such a fun post! I love making sun tea. And I definitely agree, sun tea tastes better. It takes like a combination of sunshine and Grandma’s house. I grew up in southern Wisconsin and Grandma always made sun tea, and then so did my parents. I don’t recall anyone else I knew making sun tea though, so maybe it was an us thing rather than a Wisconsin thing. I love your picture of the half-transformed tea. All your photography is gorgeous, and I always liked watching the change from water to tea. :)
Growing up in northern Minnesota, my mom and several families we knew made sun tea and lived to tell about it. I’m in Atlanta now and I still know a lot of people who make sun tea but most of them are midwestern transplants. So I guess that makes sense. :)
Born and raised on the East Coast and my mom’s been making sun tea for as long as I can remember. But come to think of it, I can’t really recall any friends’ families having it at their homes so maybe it was something my grandfather taught her (he was from Colorado)… now I’m curious – time to ask my mom some family history questions :)
Yes- having grown up in the midwest- Sun Tea was part of our summer. Then as an adult I moved to Washington State… cue the sad face. With the exception of THIS summer- it’s never hot enough or sunny long enough to make sun tea. :( NOTHING beats sun brewed tea… nothing. The pee water that’s served in restaurants out here is horrible (yes I know they wouldn’t be serving sun tea anyway) but it’s absolutely horrible. The tea is brewed so weak! Strong coffee, but weak tea. lol The only place I get decent strong tea is through the McD’s drive-thru! It’s the only place I bother with tea and that’s all I get there. lol If I don’t make a giant pitcher at home on the stove old style.
Totally a midwestern thing :) I grew up in South Dakota, and my mom did this every single summer. I have never done it as an adult, though – I should give it a whirl sometime!
I grew up on sun tea, too! I make it here in a big mason jar that is 1/2 gallon, too. I make it pretty much the same as you.
I like to toss in a few berries or sliced peaches when it is done, and I stick it in the fridge. My favourite are raspberries and blackberries. Mmmmm. I have a big jar in the fridge now! :)
Sun tea has always been a staple for us in Iowa too! And we always made it when visiting my Grandma in the summertime in Kansas. It’s definitely nostalgic having a jar of tea sitting out in the sun on a hot summer day! Love it!!
I grew up in Colorado, drinking sun tea in the summer :) I really should make some soon!
I left mine out over nite :( is it bad now?
What size tea bags are you using for this recipe?
I remember a childhood friends family making sun tea :) I grew up in Southern Oregon. Not sure if her mom was raised elsewhere though :)
” It’s too hot in the house already to put wood in the stove just to heat some water for tea. When the sun will do just fine” Grandmother
It is not a regional thing. We all just have one thing in common. Smart Grandmothers
Being a a Tarheel from birth. I grew up drinking sweet Sun tee. I Now and have in the people’s republic of Massachusetts. I making Sun tee at this very moment. I never worried about bacteria. I have also drank water in Turkey and Mexico. I can not recommend others to do so. What we all do before became germ aphobes? Enjoy Sun tea stop worrying things we can not control
Sun tea DOES taste better. I grew up on it in Alabama. Now I live in Canada, in an area that has particularly clean soft tap water,
The sun is out and I have access to the roof. Thanks for the reminder.
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