Iced tea is a time-tested Southern staple, but you don't have to live in the South to appreciate its crisp, cool and refreshing qualities. Tea's potential to be bitter, however, may not be so appealing, and that's where a little baking soda comes in handy. This ingredient counteracts the tea's natural tannins, which give the brew its bitter taste and acidic edge. If you prefer your tea hot, you're still in luck -- a bit of baking soda in the pot will give you a smooth cup of tea.
Keep It Cool
Bring a large pot of water to a boil on high heat. As the water comes to a boil, add tea bags -- about 5 to 7 tea bags per 5 cups of water, depending on how strong you want your tea -- and stir them into the water. Pekoe, black or “iced tea blend” tea bags work best for classic, Southern-style iced tea.
Stir in a pinch of baking soda just after you've stirred in the tea bags. A dab will do you fine -- you only need about 1/8 of a teaspoon per 5 cups of water. Gently stir the powder in until it dissolves completely.
Remove the water from heat and put a cover on the pot. Allow the covered mixture of tea bags, water and baking soda to steep for 15 minutes for roughly 5 cups of water. Go with a longer steeping time if you prefer stronger tea, or steep for less time for lighter, less bitter tea. Give the cooled tea taste as it steeps to find just the right amount of time for you.
Uncover the pot and discard the tea bags. If you want sweet tea, stir in sugar at a ratio of about one part sugar for every 5 parts water. Add an equal amount of plain, cool water to the steeped brew, then pour the tea into a container and refrigerate it until it's nicely chilled, which typically takes about 2 to 4 hours.
Warm Things Up
Fill your tea kettle with fresh, clean water. If you plan on transferring the water to a teapot, rinse the inside of the teapot with steamy tap water to heat it up.
Bring the water in the tea kettle to a rolling boil, unless you're preparing more delicate tea such as green or white varieties. In this case, stop just short of a boil.
Place the teabag of your choice in a teacup or mug and pour the hot water over it. Allow green or white teas to steep for about 1 to 3 minutes, depending on your preference, and black teas to steep for up to 5 minutes. Varieties such as oolong, red and herbal teas can steep for up to 7 minutes. As the tea steeps, stir in a tiny pinch of baking soda -- just a sprinkling from between your thumb and forefinger --to reduce the tea's bitterness. This method also works if you've hot tea from whole leaves -- simply sprinkle the baking soda in the cup before drinking.
If you're trying to reduce your tea's bitterness, avoid squeezing the tea bags into the water, as squeezing the bags makes for more bitter tea.
For an even smoother flavor that also helps offset bitterness, garnish your iced tea with a sprig of fresh mint.