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Brewing the Best Iced Tea

By Lan Lam Published

Whether you sip it daily or want a special beverage for summertime meals, here is how to make a lively, full-flavored brew.

Iced tea sure is popular: Of the 3.8 billion gallons of tea consumed in the United States in 2018, a whopping 80 percent of it was iced. I count myself among the many who regularly quench their thirst with the stuff, so I was happy to steep and sip my way through dozens of pitchers to develop guidelines for making the best possible versions of black and green iced tea. Overall, I found that you don’t need to be quite as persnickety about iced tea as you do about hot (particularly if you’re adding flavorings). But you do need to take steps to avoid watery or overextracted brews. Read on for advice on what kind of tea to use, the novel brewing method I came up with, and a half-dozen recipes for teas both plain and flavored.

Tea 101

Evaluate these qualities when you sip tea straight, whether iced or hot.

 

Taste:As with wine, the flavor of tea ranges from light and delicate to full and pungent. And all teas contain bitter polyphenols, but the exact content varies depending on a number of variables, including terroir, oxidation, and aging.

 

Aroma:Distinctive aromas that span a broad spectrum are a big component of the flavor of tea. Expect fruity, leathery, floral, or even smoky aromas in black teas. Green teas tend to feature grassy, mineral, floral, and marine scents.

 

Texture: Great tea isn’t just about taste, it’s also about mouthfeel. Polyphenols can cause astringency, or a pleasant drying sensation, that lingers on the palate. Some infusions also contain compounds that give tea a lingering creaminess.

Splurge on Loose-Leaf for Plain Iced Tea

When I compared iced tea made from loose-leaf tea with iced tea made from tea bags (using the same type and brand for consistency), I found that the former produced a more flavorful, complex drink. That’s because most tea bags are filled with tiny broken tea leaves, called “dust” or “fannings,” that remain after the higher-quality whole leaves are sifted. These dregs have very little interior that’s not exposed to air, so aromas and volatile oils readily escape from the broken surfaces.

Members of the Cook’s Illustrated team rate iced tea samples during a tasting of black tea varieties.

Tea Bags Are Fine for the Flavored Kind

When I made our flavored iced tea recipes using equal weights of bagged and loose-leaf tea, the differences were too subtle to justify the extra expense of loose-leaf. That said, stick with good-quality bagged tea.

Make a Lively Infusion

I found that 1½ tablespoons of black tea per quart of water produced a vibrant yet not overly strong brew. If using green tea, which is generally subtler, increase the amount to 2 tablespoons.

Tea removed from individual bags is steeped alongside an equal amount of loose-leaf tea so that the flavor and strength of each type can be evaluated.

Employ a Hybrid Brewing Method

Iced tea can be brewed using either cold or boiling water. In a side-by-side comparison, a cold-water, 24-hour infusion tasted flat. That’s because a number of the compounds that give tea balanced astringency and bitterness are extracted more effectively in hot water than in cold water (see “Leverage Your Leaves” below). But iced tea brewed for 4 minutes in water that had been brought to a boil lacked sufficient intensity. Making the tea stronger by brewing longer in hot water only made the tea overly bitter and mouth-drying. Increasing the amount of tea worked, but I ultimately came up with a thrifty method that produced the same great flavor without extra tea:

  • First, steep the tea in 3 cups of water that has been brought to a boil (or 175-degree water for green tea) for 4 minutes.
  • Then add 1 cup of ice water and continue to steep for 1 hour. At the cooler temperature, full-flavored aromatic compounds continue to infuse the water and the bitter and astringent ones do not.

Leverage Your Leaves

Tea can be expensive—so brew with economy in mind. We make a full-flavored drink not by adding extra leaves but by using a smart method.

  • Hot steep: 4 minutes 

    A short, hot steep draws out compounds such as caffeine, theobromine, and polyphenols that make tea pleasantly bitter and astringent.

     

    Cool steep: 1 hour  

    Adding ice water slows the extraction of bitter and astringent compounds. Continuing to steep for 1 hour magnifies full-flavored aromatic compounds.

Teas to Try

Here are a few of my favorite teas to serve iced (and hot).


  • BLACK


    Variety: Assam

    Profile: full-bodied tea with robust, malty flavor

  •  

    Variety: Keemun

    Profile: a smooth, creamy mouthfeel; slight smokiness; and hints of cocoa

  •  

    Variety: Second Flush Darjeeling

    Profile: mild sweetness, citrus, and light floral notes


  • GREEN


    Variety: Gunpowder or Dragon Well (slightly sweeter)

    Profile: astringency and grassy, vegetal flavors

  •  

    Variety: Sencha

    Profile: seaweed, alfalfa, and umami

Recipes

Best-Ever Iced Teas

Recipe Iced Black Tea

Our novel brewing method ensures that this classic iced tea will be lively and full-flavored every time you make it.

Recipe Raspberry-Basil Iced Black Tea

Thawed frozen raspberries mashed with basil, sugar, and lemon juice give this tea remarkably refreshing flavor. 

Recipe Ginger-Pomegranate Iced Black Tea

For brisk and refreshing iced tea with spicy fruitiness, we pair tart pomegranate juice with zingy ginger. 

Recipe Iced Green Tea

For smooth and refreshing iced green tea, we skip lower-quality bagged tea in favor of loose-leaf tea.

Recipe Cantaloupe-Mint Iced Green Tea

Cantaloupe brings a delicate fruitiness to this iced green tea, and mint makes it extra-refreshing.  

Recipe Cucumber-Lime Iced Green Tea

For iced green tea with a cool twist, we use cucumber, lime zest, and lime juice.

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JC
JOHN C.
16 days

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too. I've done this using a rimmed sheet pan instead of a skillet and put veggies and potatoes around the chicken for a one-pan meal. Broccoli gets nicely browned and yummy!

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too.

MD
MILES D.
JOHN C.
9 days

Amazed this recipe works out as well as it does. Would not have thought that the amount of time under the broiler would have produced a very juicy and favorable chicken with a very crispy crust. Used my 12" Lodge Cast Iron skillet (which can withstand 1000 degree temps to respond to those who wondered if it would work) and it turned out great. A "make again" as my family rates things. This is a great recipe, and I will definitely make it again. My butcher gladly butterflied the chicken for me, therefore I found it to be a fast and easy prep. I used my cast iron skillet- marvellous!

CM
CHARLES M.
11 days

John, wasn't it just amazing chicken? So much better than your typical oven baked chicken and on par if not better than gas or even charcoal grilled. It gets that smokey charcoal tasted and overnight koshering definitely helps, something I do when time permits. First-time I've pierced a whole chicken minus the times I make jerk chicken on the grill. Yup, the cast iron was not an issue.