By now, I presume all of you have mastered the art of making flavorful, fragrant, fabulous iced tea. I imagine that you are enjoying the radio show or reading this blog, glass in hand, thoroughly chilled and perfectly content. But for some of you, something is missing. In episode seven of Steeping Around, Manish disembarks from the fine details of perfect brewing. He’s moved into sweeter territory: well, sweeteners.
There is no shortage of sweetening agents that can make a fine pairing with tea, but most of us use plain white sugar. It is both readily available and also the most familiar sweetener, and as an added convenience it comes in small, measured white packets that a drinker can count out and pour into their glass, exactly to their specifications. We all know what it is and how to use it, and for that reason we are moving quickly past it and into the more imaginative sweet options. For those of you who prefer baby steps into the unknown, try raw sugar, commonly branded as “Sugar in the Raw.” True, it comes from the same plant, but raw sugar features a relatively small amount of processing, resulting in a more natural, arguably more flavorful product. Its granules are blonde in color and have a slightly nutty, almost honey-like flavor that encourages and compliments some of the more subtle flavors in your iced tea. “If I’m going to use a granulated form of sugar,” Manish affirms, “I prefer Sugar in the Raw.”
A slightly more interesting option is stevia, a South American herb that has been used for hundreds of years to add a touch of sweetness to foods and drinks. Its leaves boast 30-40 times the sweetness of sugar, yet it is virtually calorie-free and has a glycemic index of zero, making it an ideal choice for dieters and diabetics alike. Another advantage of stevia is that you can grow it yourself, and with considerable more ease than plotting a field of sugar cane. Remember though, if you are plucking leaves from a fresh stevia plant, that one leaf will go a long, long way. And for those of you wistfully thinking about those convenient white packets, some good news: stevia is now available in powdered form at most supermarkets.
Let’s stray from the powders and packets for a bit though, as there is a myriad of liquid sweeteners that can add their own unique touch to your glass of iced tea. Most of us have heard of Sweet N’ Low, and rest assured—this isn’t what we’re referring to. In the tea industry, we align with more natural options for our food and drink, and sweetening agents are no exception. Instead, we draw our focus to honey, brown rice syrup, molasses, and agave nectar.
Of the four, honey is by far the most commonly used. It can be found in any grocery store, but added benefits can be procured from the use of local honey, and specifically those that are raw and unfiltered. Local honeys contain all of the local pollens that often plague our sinuses, and using a bit of it everyday can offer a weary body relief from seasonal allergies. Additionally, local honey usually comes in a variety of flavors dependent on the flowers available to the bees, and can add delicate floral or citrus notes to your iced tea. Brown rice syrup and molasses are similar sweeteners, reminiscent of honey in flavor, but slightly nuttier and far thicker. The only disadvantage is in stirring; it may take a minute or so. The results, however, will be well worth it, and in most cases you won’t even break a sweat.
Agave nectar is a fashionable new sweetener to use, and jars of it are beginning to show their faces on grocery shelves across the country. It is an ideal choice for vegans or raw food enthusiasts, as it incorporates neither animal products nor heating during processing. It comes from the agave cactus and has actually been harvested for centuries, yet has gained public acknowledgment only in recent years. “It is also used to make tequila, so it has many wonderful uses,” Manish comments giddily. For iced tea though, this delicate nectar is perfect: it dissolves quickly and easily and adds a perfect layer of sweetness to your glass.
Once you’ve brewed your perfect iced tea and added a small amount of the sweetener that suits you, all that remains undone is the classic wedge of lemon to rim your glass. If you’re feeling zesty, perhaps you’ll add a sprig of mint… but how about cucumbers? Next week, Manish will be opening your eyes and minds: options are limitless for sprucing your iced tea up, and for making it, well, yours. Herbs, spices, fruits, and even vegetables can help to make your glass unforgettable. Tune in next week for ideas!
To listen to episode seven, click here.
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The first time I tried chai was in the kitchen of my parent’s house, and served by my younger sister. “You have to taste this—” she insisted, pushing a mug across the countertop to me. She refused to elaborate on its contents. The flavors, she said, would speak for themselves.
The quality of water affects the taste of your tea; this is beyond dispute. The relative quantities of mineral salts, oxygen and trace elements determine the relative "liveliness" or "flatness" of a particular cup. To that simple substance we add the basic flavor of the leaf itself or an herbal substitute.