During the peak of iced tea season the question asked around pitchers is, “Sweetened or unsweetened?”And if sweetened, “How sweet is it?”
The answer is to let your guests decide by sweetening their own. But granulated sugar is near impossible to dissolve in iced tea. The best solution to your custom sweetened iced tea is to make a simple syrup and serve it in a small pitcher alongside your big pitcher of tea. Both smart and crowd pleasing. Did I mention simple?
Simple Syrups 101
Plain simple syrup is very simple to make. If you can boil water you can do this. Just combine equal quantities of sugar and water in a pot and heat until sugar is dissolved. Actual boiling is usually not necessary so maybe this is even simpler than boiling water. A little stirring helps the process. Chill until cold. Transfer to a small pitcher. I cup of sugar and 1 cup of water will yield 1 3/4 cups simple syrup.
Another handy way to store and serve your simple syrup is to transfer it to an empty wine bottle. Label removal nice but optional. Place a liquor pourer on top.
Simple syrups will keep in the refrigerator for up to a month. They are also useful for sweetening iced coffee.
More advanced simple syrups are infused syrups. These are only slightly less simple than very simple. If you can make tea, you can infuse syrups. Simply add a quantity of whatever you want to use to flavor your syrup and steep it in warm syrup just as you would tea. If the flavoring is hard — like star anise or cardamom pods — you may need to steep over a very low heat for 15-20 minutes and then off heat and, ideally let sit overnight. Breaking up the pods helps. Take care not to cook down the syrup while steeping. You may need to add a bit of water back.
A little more or a little less flavoring is no big deal so don’t obsess about quantities of flavoring. You can always re-heat and add some more if the flavor is not strong enough.
During my recent visit to the Union Square Greenmarket I purchased an over-sized container of purple anise hyssop flowers. The friendly farmer said these are mostly used by restaurant bakers for breads and pastries. I wanted a bit of the pretty flowers to add to a berry salad, but I needed far less than was in the container. He suggested I make a syrup. I now have it happily chilling in my refrigerator ready and waiting to add a touch of sweet anise to my next batch of iced tea.
Here’s a recipe for an ideal iced tea sweetener.
Do ahead up to one month
3/4 cup water
1 cup sugar
2 ounce mint sprigs* — about enough mint sprigs when lightly presses fills 2 cups
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice — about 3-4 lemons (never use anything but fresh lemon juice!)
Combine sugar and water in a small pot over moderate heat, stirring occasionally until sugar is dissolved and syrup is just approaching a boil. Add mint and stir. After 20-30 minutes, strain out mint — squeezing mint to extract liquid. Allow to reach room temperature. Add lemon juice and chill.
* You can reserve a few springs of mint to garnish your tea along with a slice of lemon.
Having a pitcher of iced tea in the refrigerator with simple syrup means you are always ready to welcome guests…expected or not.
This illustration is by my friend Pascal Lemaitre. It’s from At Home by Steve Poses: A Caterer’s Guide to Cooking & Entertaining. There are more than 200 more in the book.
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