How to Safely Make Sun Tea With Fresh or Dry Herbs
Mint. Lemon verbena. Chamomile. Pineapple sage. Even writing that makes me feel refreshed! My childhood memories are speckled with images of my mom’s sun tea brewing on the back porch. It’s something I’ve always enjoyed, but even more so now that I can make sun tea with fresh herbs from our garden! However, given the growing awareness of possible health risks, we might not want to make it exactly like mama used to…
Come learn how to safely make sun tea using dry or fresh herbs. We’ll explore examples of the best herbs to use in sun tea, important safety precautions and good brewing practices, and other commonly asked questions. Overall, it’s easy and fun to make sun tea. Depending on the herbs you use, sun tea can offer wonderful medicinal benefits too!
What is sun tea?
Sun tea is a refreshing beverage made by steeping herbs or tea in water, left out in the sunshine to infuse. You can make sun tea with a variety of fresh herbs, dried herbs, flowers, spices, and/or tea leaves – including decaf or caffeinated tea. Black sun tea is a classic, but we’ll focus mostly on herbs today.
While undoubtedly nostalgic and delicious, sun tea has become a bit controversial in recent years. Herbalists revere sun tea for its place in tradition and potential health benefits – including the powers of solar infusion. Meanwhile, leery microbiologists warn that sun tea can be the perfect breeding ground for bacteria.
To be honest, it makes me sad how many Google hits around sun tea are warnings to avoid it altogether! That’s silly, like saying to avoid preserving your own food since there is risk involved if done incorrectly (and a very slight risk at that). So, let’s address that from the start!
Keep in mind that I used to be a health inspector in a past life, and we make sun tea all the time.
Is sun tea safe?
For the most part, yes. If you follow the recommended best practices, making herbal sun tea is safe, healthy, and fun. However, there is some slight risk for potentially harmful bacteria to grow in sun tea under prime and unfortunate circumstances. In addition to following a short brewing time of 4 hours or less (explained more below), other ways to minimize risk include:
- Thoroughly wash and clean your brewing vessel with hot water before starting.
- Choose glass containers to make sun tea rather than plastic. Toxins can leach out of plastic, especially when left to sit in the hot sun! We usually brew our tea in sturdy half-gallon mason jars or a glass flip-top container like this.
- Keep the brewing vessel covered with a sealed lid at all times, especially while it is sitting outside. Do not cover with cheesecloth or other breathable materials that may allow contaminants in.
- Wash fresh herbs well with hot water before steeping.
- If you’re extra nervous, stick with dry herbs. We often use fresh herbs to make sun tea, though dried herbs do pose less risk.
- Do not add sugar during brewing because sugar encourages bacterial growth. If you wish to sweeten your sun tea, wait to add sugar (or honey, agave, maple syrup, etc) until right before you drink it.
- Make small batches of sun tea at a time; an amount you’ll be able to consume within a few days. Keep tea refrigerated after brewing.
- Avoid herbs with bird poop.
How long should sun tea sit in the sun?
To follow food safety best practices, sun tea should sit out for only three to four hours maximum, and then be consumed or refrigerated immediately thereafter. Temperatures between 40-140 degrees Fahrenheit (aka, the temperature of your beloved tea is steeping at) is considered the “danger zone” in the food safety world. When potentially hazardous foods or beverages are in that temperature range for 4 hours or longer, harmful pathogens may develop. This also applies to wet plant material in an enclosed jar.
That said, I know there are many folks who often brew their sun tea much longer without any issues! Myself included, especially before I “knew better”…. But out of an overabundance of caution, I have to pass along the information so you can make an informed decision.
To maximize the steeping, sun power, and flavor extraction despite the short brew time, I like to start my herbal sun tea with warm water (especially because our weather is quite mild here). I also try to put it out during the hottest, sunniest part of the afternoon. Without adequate warmth and time, sun tea can be weaker in flavor or medicinal benefits. You can also allow the herbs to continue to cold-infuse in the refrigerator after a few hours in the sun, as explained in the instructions to follow.
Can I use fresh herbs to make sun tea?
Yes! Most store-bought herbal tea is dried to extend its shelf life, but that doesn’t mean it has to be. Fresh herbs can be more rich in vitamins and nutrients, and offer a lighter, more delicate flavor to sun tea. On the other hand, the flavor and antioxidants are even more concentrated in dry herbs – so a little goes a long way! The general rule of thumb is to use three times as much fresh herbs than dry herbs to achieve a similar flavor.
Last but not least, keep in mind that fresh herbs are more likely to introduce bacteria to your sun tea than dry herbs… but don’t let that dissuade you from using them. Just stick to the recommended brew time, washing, and temperature controls. Plus, not all bacteria is harmful! By and large, microbes are our friends. Use just-picked herbs for the best results.
The Best Herbs to Make Sun Tea
You can use any edible herb to make sun tea. Rosemary, oregano, thyme, sage… However, the herbs listed below will make the best-tasting sun tea:
- Mint – including peppermint, spearmint, chocolate mint and others
- Lemon Balm
- Lemon Verbena
- Tulsi (holy basil)
- Pineapple sage
- Anise hyssop (flowers or leaves)
- Lavender buds (English lavender is the most sweet)
The following herbs may not be quite as tasty, but will offer wonderful medicinal benefits to your sun tea:
- Yarrow flowers
- Echinacea (root and flower mostly)
- Dandelion (root, leaf or flower)
- Red clover blossoms or leaves
- Nettles (blanch or dry before use to “de-sting”)
You can also add edible flowers to sun tea for a pretty pop of color, including but not limited to: violas, roses, bachelors buttons, borage flowers (in moderation), hibiscus, calendula, and elderflower (flowers only, the leaves and stems are toxic).
Make sun tea with just one or two types of herbs, or mix several at once! Just be sure you’re familiar with or properly ID the herbs before adding them to your brew. A quick Google search can usually help with identification. Also please do further research about safety if you’re pregnant, nursing, or have any health issues.
To learn more about the characteristics, medicinal benefits, and other uses for each herb, I highly recommend this book: Beginner’s Guide to Medicinal Herbs by Rosemary Gladstar. Also feel free to pop over to our Growing Herbs 101 guide.
Steps To Make Sun Tea
- Start with a durable clean glass container (washed with hot water), and thoroughly rinse fresh herbs with warm water.
- For fresh herbs, fill the container about one-third to half full. To make sun tea with dried herbs, you can either add dry herbs right into the container/water and strain them later (like we’ll do with fresh herbs), or keep them contained in a large loose-leaf tea strainer, cheesecloth, reusable mesh bag, or other similar porous material. A handful or several tablespoons (about an ounce) of dry herbs per half gallon water is a good amount.
- Optional: add some tea if you’d like! We usually just use herbs, but if I do add tea, I really love the bulk organic loose leaf options from Numi – like jasmine green, golden oolong, or black breakfast blend. Follow recommended amounts on the package.
- Add filtered water, and cover the container with a tight-fitting lid. Again, I usually use warm water to jumpstart the brewing process.
- Allow the sun tea to brew in direct sunlight for three to four hours. Food safety experts recommend no more than 4 hours if you intend to drink it immediately, and only 3 to 3.5 hours if you’ll be refrigerating leftovers. I like to set mine outside (which will warm up the most) though you could also set it in a sunny window if needed. The hottest time of day will yield the best results.
- When the time is up, strain the fresh herbs or remove the dry herb “tea bag”. To strain our tea, we usually position a fine mesh colander over a separate clean container (jar or bowl) and pour the sun tea through. For a stronger infusion, you can also leave the herbs in the sun tea overnight (in the fridge) and strain it the following day. I do this often, especially after brewing on temperate days, or when I’m too lazy/busy to strain it immediately! Compost the spent herbs or tea.
- Store the finished sun tea in the refrigerator.
- Now it’s time to enjoy your brew! Pour some over ice and enjoy a refreshing glass of homemade herbal sun tea. I usually drink mine plain, or add a slice of lemon and/or cucumber from the garden.
How long is sun tea good for?
Sun tea that has been refrigerated after brewing is best used within 5 days (a week maximum). You’ll notice it darkens in color over time, which is totally normal. Chlorophyll, or the compound in plants that gives them their green color, is simply oxidizing. Do not consume if it grows mold or develops off odors.
Can you add fresh fruit to sun tea?
Adding fruit to sun tea increases the risk for harmful bacterial growth in your brew. The fruit itself may introduce microbes, and the sugar in the fruit helps to feed microbes that may be in the vessel in general. If you really want to make a fruit-forward tea, it’d be best to use boiling water and a short steeping period rather than slow-brewing sun tea.
That said, you can add fruit to your sun tea if you follow the best safe brewing practices we’ve explored in this article. Strawberries, peaches, and cucumber are especially delicious, and pair exceptionally well with minty tea flavors.
Citrus are the safest fruits to use in sun tea, including lemon, lime, oranges or grapefruit. Their acidic nature can help reduce bacterial growth. I love to add dehydrated citrus to mine! I also often add sliced cucumber or fresh lemon to my glass of sun tea, but not during the brewing process itself. Sliced fresh ginger is another amazing addition!
And that concludes this lesson on how to safely make herbal sun tea!
Of course you can also make herbal tea by steeping fresh or dried herbs in boiling water for a few minutes, but sun tea has always held a special place in my heart – and now on our homestead! I hope this provides you with all the information you need to feel comfortable and excited to safely make sun tea too. Please feel free to ask questions in the comments below, and please consider sharing or pinning this article if you found it useful. You can also leave a star rating and review below if you wish! Happy brewing!
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How to Safely Make Sun Tea With Fresh or Dry Herbs
- Large glass container with lid (such as a half mason jar or flip-top container)
- Bulk loose-leaf tea strainer, cheesecloth, or reusable food safe mesh bag (optional)
- Fresh herbs of choice, such as mint, chamomile, lemon verbena, lemon balm, tulsi, etc. (fill container about 1/3 to half full)
- or 1/3 the amount in dry herbs (use about 1 ounce or 2-3 tbsp of dried herbs per half gallon of water)
- Start with a very clean container (wash with hot water). Also rinse fresh herbs with warm to hot water.
- For fresh herbs, loosely fill the container 1/3 to 1/2 full of herbs (sometimes I do less). For dry herbs, use about 1 ounce or 2-3 Tbsp (about a handful). You can put dry herbs right in the containers, or keep them inside a loose leaf tea strainer, cheesecloth, or other porous "tea bag".
- Optional: add some tea if you'd like, such as bulk organic loose leaf jasmine green, golden oolong, or black breakfast blend. Follow recommended amounts on the package.
- Add warm filtered water.
- Cover the container with a lid.
- Allow the herbal sun tea to steep in the direct sun for 3 to 4 hours (4 hours if you'll consume it all immediately thereafter, 3 to 3.5 hours if you'll be refrigerating leftovers). The hottest time of day will yield best results.
- Stain tea through a fine mesh colander or cheesecloth to remove the herbs. (For a stronger brew, let the herbs continue to cold-infuse in the fridge overnight and strain the following day instead.)
- Immediately refrigerate leftovers and maintain refrigerated.
- Enjoy within 5 days for best results, up to one week. Discard if mold or off odors develop.
- Food safety best practice: only add sugar, fruit, or other sweetener at the time of consumption, not during the brewing process.
Thanks so much for all the information that you take the time to give us. It is greatly appreciated.
I’m a little shocked to read the warnings about sun tea. I’ve been making it for as long as I can remember & apparently have been doing it slightly wrong. This has been a great article to catch me up on the safe brewing practices and I’ll be trying some of the listed herbs! Cheers!
I too hold sun tea in a special place in my heart! Thanks so much for sharing this!
Question – If jelly and jam are shelf stable due to so much sugar – why can we also say sugar encourages bacteria? I just don’t understand and knowing why will help me remember. This is a great article and I’ve made sun tea for years and have never heard that there are some safety considerations. After picking red noodle beans and tasting the pretty pink bean inside, my granddaughter asked if it was safe – well of course it is – then I did some research and found the black, navy, kidney, great northern beans are never to be eaten raw and kidney never to be home canned since it contains something that isn’t destroyed in home canning process. I never even thought about it. The value of the internet is high and I’m thankful for your research and article – but so much stuff on-line is crazy.
Hi Mary – Sugar helps preserve jam quality (color, taste, texture, etc) but it’s actually the acid that safely preserves it and reduces bacterial growth, such as the lemon juice that is added to most jam recipes. Not to mention jams are boiled to kill bacteria both in the pot and then in the canner. They also use a LOT more sugar than the little bit you’d add to sun tea. Another example is making homemade apple cider vinegar – which is fruit, water, and sugar in a vessel of water. That too is lot more sugar than sun tea, and ferments long enough that the pH drops very low (again, the acid preserving it) as it turns into vinegar. Sun tea doesn’t sit long enough for that pH drop to occur. All that said, these “best brewing practices” are out an an OVER abundance of caution, as I mentioned. Getting sick from sun tea would be a rare case I imagine. Again, I was simply shocked and sad to see all the warnings against it online, so I figured it’d be good to spell out how to make it 100% “safe”, though I don’t even follow all these best practices myself sometimes! Lol. Happy brewing.
It may also help to think of the process of proofing yeast before making bread: yeast, sugar, and warm water are combined, then start to bubble, because the yeast is ingesting the sugar. The bread rises because the yeast has that sugar to eat and grow from. Microbes of all kinds, yeasts and bacteria, eat sugar. When they eat, they multiply, especially in ideal temperatures like those found in sun tea brewing: Warmer than a fridge, but not as hot as boiling.