From Sweet Tea to Chai: Delicious Homemade Tea Recipes

"You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me." – C.S. Lewis

I have the drinking habits of an English pensioner. I pretty much require a cup of hot tea with every meal. I carry tea bags with me to insure that I never have to put up with bad restaurant coffee. The warm weather of Southern California has no impact on my tea drinking. I drink tea all day, every day.

And why not? Tea is a remarkably versatile beverage. It never gets boring. As four-time British Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone, once remarked, “ If you are cold, tea will warm you. If you are too heated, it will cool you. If you are depressed, it will cheer you. If you are excited, it will calm you.”

Tea. It’s an all-temperature problem solver. (See also: 10 Reasons to Drink Tea)

1. Sweet Tea

"American-style iced tea is the perfect drink for a hot, sunny day. It's never really caught on in the UK, probably because the last time we had a hot, sunny day was back in 1957." – Tom Holt

Somewhere in East Texas there is an invisible line where Sweet Tea Territory begins. Once you cross the line, it is just assumed that when you order iced tea, what you really mean is sweet tea. As Dolly Parton says in Steel Magnolias, “Sweet tea is the house wine of the South.”

Iced tea is an American invention, and sweet tea was the status cocktail of the early 1900s as sugar, tea, and ice were all expensive imported food products.

The oldest known recipe for sweet tea was published in 1879 in a cookbook by Marion Cabell Tyree titled "House Keeping In Old Virginia." The original recipe, like most pre-WW2 sweet tea recipes, called for green tea:

After scalding the teapot, put into it one quart of boiling water and two teaspoonfuls green tea. If wanted for supper, do this at breakfast. At dinner time, strain, without stirring, through a tea strainer into a pitcher. Let it stand till tea time and pour into decanters, leaving the sediment in the bottom of the pitcher. Fill the goblets with ice, put two teaspoonfuls granulated sugar in each, and pour the tea over the ice and sugar. A squeeze of lemon will make this delicious and healthful, as it will correct the astringent tendency.

(Due to anti-Japanese sentiment, Americans switched to using black tea from India during the War and have only recently reembraced green tea).

2. Arnold Palmer...and Other Golfer-Named Drinks

As much as I love sweet tea, my favorite summer tea beverage is the Arnold Palmer, which is three parts iced tea to one part lemonade.

Many people believe that an Arnold Palmer is an alcoholic beverage. These people are wrong. The drink that consists of lemonade, iced tea, and vodka is a called a John Daly.

These drinks, and the Tiger Woods, (which is a blend of that horribly popular passion fruit tea that smells like bad cologne and lemonade), are all named after professional golfers. (The John Daly name is a nod to Daly’s reputation as a drinker). Lemonade, iced tea, and Everclear is called a Happy Gilmore. A related, but non-golf cocktail is The Donovan, which was named after shipping magnate Andrew Donovan. The Donovan is a mix of lemonade and sweet tea vodka.

3. Thai Iced Tea

Another great summertime beverage is Thai iced tea. Made with evaporated milk, Thai iced tea can double as a desert. The unique flavor of Thai iced tea comes from the vanilla, cinnamon, tamarind, and star anise that are added to black tea. You can make Thai iced tea completely from scratch using this basic recipe.

However, since I live close to Thai Town in my city, I prefer to buy a premade, packaged mix of black tea and spices from my local Thai market, as it’s easier and cheaper than buying the ingredients separately. You can also buy this mix online.

4. Chai

If you have a lot of random spices leftover from baking projects, chai is a delicious way to use them up at the end of the holiday season. My House Chai Recipe starts with the cheapest black tea in my pantry, black pepper, and water, but I will throw in a mix of five or six other spices to vary the flavor.

5. Mulled Punch/Russian Tea

My mother is famous for her mulled punch, which is black tea mixed with orange, lemon, and pineapple juice, and spiced with cinnamon sticks and a tongue-numbing amount of whole cloves. This hot drink is often referred to as Russian tea, even though it has nothing to do with that country).

There are many recipes for instant Russian tea floating around the internet. All of them feature a mix of instant ice tea mix, powdered lemonade, and Tang. (Russian tea. It’s the drink of cosmonauts). Don’t let the low-fi ingredients fool you. This tea mix tastes like nostalgia and makes a splendid, no-bake holiday gift.

6. Apple Tea

A slightly fancier gift mix you can make at home is apple tea. It’s extra cute (and thrifty) packed into an apple-shaped Martinelli’s Cider bottle.

7. Tea Smoothies

Tea can also be used as an energy boost to breakfast smoothie, like in this cranberry green tea smoothie.

8. Tisanes

Teas that are not made from the camellia sinensis plant are not true teas, but tisanes. Tisanes are infusions that are made with flowers, fruit, herbs, or other plants. Many tisanes are based on old medicinal elixirs that are so yummy, people have forgotten their original purpose. Honey lemon tea (also known as hot lemonade) is one of my favorite wintertime beverages. An array of herbs and flowers can be added to honey lemon tea for additional flavors and healing properties, including mint, thyme, echinacea, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and lavender.

Jamaica, one of the most popular Mexican aguas frescas, is a cold tisane made from hibiscus flowers. Many Mexican supermarkets carry dried jamaica flowers in bulk. Jamaica will forever ruin Kool-Aid for you. Fair warning.

Also do not make the mistake I made the first time I saw this on a menu. It’s pronounced the Spanish way, “Hah-MIKE-ah,” not like the island nation.

Finally, wear old clothes when you make this tisane. In addition to being delicious, you can also use jamaica as a natural alternative to pink dye.

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Guest's picture

Over the past year or so I started collecting loose teas from my local bulk food store. They taste so much better than the packaged Celestial Seasonings stuff, IMO. Thanks for sharing all this info - I never even considered a tea smoothie. Also, had no idea I could make my own Chai (which I looooove with a bit of cream and sugar).

Guest's picture
Stephanie Del Principe

Appreciate this article! I'm loving everything I can learn about tea lately. Thanks for the tip on "Jamaica" pronunciation.