Sweet Tea Brined Chicken

By Ann Fulton

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Sweet tea provides unexpected magic in this incredibly easy, marinated chicken that takes mere minutes to prep. Rest assured, the finished chicken is tender and juicy but doesn’t actually taste like iced tea!





When Mitch Nugent made a point by connecting two things I love—live theater and ice cream–I perked up.

Mitch and I met last spring, shortly after the McCaskey vocal ensemble, of which my son is a member, had the opportunity to share a local stage with Broadway icon Stephen Schwartz. If his name doesn’t ring a bell, his music likely does. Schwartz wrote the music for smash Broadway hits Wicked, Godspell, and Pippin as well as lyrics for a variety of Disney films including Pocahontas and Enchanted.

Mitch is the executive producer of PRiMA, a boutique performing arts group headquartered in Lancaster, and he leveraged his New York City connections to bring the musical legend to town for a master class and a performance by Schwartz himself.  The latter featured the PRiMA professionals and the high school ensemble.

As I sat in the audience and listened to this down-to-earth musical genius sing, play the piano, and talk about his creative process, I pinched myself at the opportunity afforded this group of high school students. Thank you Mitch Nugent.

When Mitch founded PRiMA five years ago, he did it with the desire to offer fresh, musically-focused theatrical experiences. Enter the ice cream analogy. When visiting your favorite ice cream shop, the expectation is that there are many flavors, not just two or three. Everyone has unique preferences. Some like the same flavor every time, others like to branch out. Though Mitch enjoys vanilla, he prefers to try a new flavor every time. Similarly, he wants his theater group to be innovative and always offer a twist on the traditional.

Accordingly, Mitch doesn’t view his group as competing with the impressive array of performing art organizations in Lancaster. As he puts it, a growing, vibrant city deserves to have a multitude of flavors, and Mitch thrives on the fact that each group has the ability to set the bar higher and do its part to elevate the cultural arts scene.

Though PRiMA is Lancaster City-based, its performances rove among different venues. Mitch mentioned that while the organization is on the radar of those in the performing arts scenes in New York and Philadelphia, locally, many people are unaware—and he wants to change that.

Next up is Big Fish at the Willow Valley Communities Cultural Center Theater. (See details and ticket information below.) The setting for this heart-warming musical is Montgomery, Alabama, and fittingly, Mitch recently passed along a recipe given to him by his sister and brother-in-law, who happen to live in Montgomery.

Just as Mitch likes his theatrical performances to offer a twist on the traditional, Sweet Tea Chicken injects a favorite Southern drink into basic brined chicken. His sister enthusiastically reported that the concept is a current culinary rage in Alabama.

I first made the tender chicken for my in-laws, and my father-in-law, who typically prefers dark meat to light, proclaimed it the best chicken breast he’s ever eaten. To bring a few more opinions into the mix for this somewhat unusual recipe—and to experiment with the ingredients just a bit–I made the recipe several more times. I tried three different brands of sweet tea (and you could certainly brew your own), including Snapple, Sweet Leaf, and a local favorite—Turkey Hill.
When I delivered a batch to my brother and his family, figuring that the opinions of two more adults and two young girls wouldn’t hurt, my sister-in-law’s comment was, “I have no idea what’s in it, but it’s really, really, really good.”

The brine contributes unique flavor and moisture, and it’s so easy to prepare. Leftovers are delicious, as is, or will add extra flavor to your favorite chicken salad recipe. (We especially the leftovers in Summer Breeze Chicken Salad.)

Sweet tea provides unexpected magic in this incredibly easy, marinated chicken that takes mere minutes to prep. Rest assured, the finished chicken is tender and juicy but doesn't actually taste like iced tea! 

If you’re local and would like to see them in action…  (Note: this show has finished its run but current season can be viewed through the link, below.)
PRiMA’s Next Show: Big Fish
When: September 23, 25, & October 2  |  7PM
Where: Willow Valley Communities Cultural Center Theater (900 Willow Valley Lakes Drive, Lancaster PA 17584)
For more information and/or tickets, visit www.primatheatre.org 

Sweet Tea Brined Chicken

Sweet Tea Brined Chicken
This incredibly flavorful chicken is marinated in sweet tea and takes mere minutes to prep.

Yield: 4-6 servings
  • 2 cups (or one 16-ounce bottle) sweet tea*
  • 2 medium sweet onions, peeled and sliced
  • 2 lemons, sliced
  • 2 sprigs (each 6-8 inches long) rosemary
  • 2 level tablespoons kosher salt**
  • 4 to 6 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves***
  1. Place all of the ingredients in a large zip-top bag and carefully move the bag around to evenly distribute everything. (I gently squeeze just the end pieces of the lemons into the bag but leave the other slices in tact rather than actually juicing the lemons.) If possible, marinate overnight.
  2. When ready to eat, allow the chicken to sit at room temperature as the grill is preheating. Drain and discard the marinade (or do like my husband likes to do and drizzle some of the marinade over the chicken as it cooks—just don’t consume it uncooked), and then grill the chicken over medium-high heat for 7-8 minutes per side or until the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees F. Total cooking time will vary based on size of chicken breast. (We like to grill the onion and lemon slices, too.) Remove to a platter and allow the chicken to rest for 5 to 10 minutes before serving.
  • *You could make your own sweet tea, but purchased is fine. I have used several different brands. The key is that it’s called “sweet tea” and it’s not artificially flavored. Keep in mind that most of the sugar in the tea will be discarded with the marinade. Also, some sweet teas include lemon. I have not used them, relying instead on the addition of fresh lemons, which are nice when grilled and served alongside the cooked chicken.
  • **Kosher salt is coarser than regular table salt and recommended for brining. If you only have table salt and wish to use that, I recommend using 1 1/2 tablespoons the first time you make this recipe.
  • *** The original recipe calls for 3 to 4 bone-in breasts that are baked at 400 degrees F for 35 minutes, give or take a few minutes, or until the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees F. We have enjoyed grilling boneless breasts, and I have found that the marinade will sufficiently cover 6 of them. With the higher number, however, it is helpful to have an extra large (2-gallon) zip-top bag in which to marinate everything.
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  1. Nancy Fischer

    Another wonderful chicken recipe! Brining in sweet tea seemed bizarre, but it was terrific! Great flavor and very tender. Grilled the onions alongside, as suggested. Easy and delicious!!

    1. Ann Post author

      I know, Nancy! This is one of those recipes where you have to have faith – and I’m so happy you did! I love the onions on the side, too, by the way. So good!

  2. Carrie Post author

    Made this about three times last summer and just started marinating my first batch of this grilling season. We LOVE the flavor and the utter ease of it. (And leftovers are SOOOO good later in the summer in your summer breeze chicken salad!)

  3. Nadja

    I live in Europe (Vienna, Austria, to be precise) and have never had “sweet tea”.
    How do you prepare it? What kind of tea do you use, and how much? How much sugar?
    I’ve been to California many times because my in-laws live there, but somehow it seems I’ve missed out on sweet tea because I typically don’t drink anything sweet.
    Your recipe intrigues me, however, and I’d really like to try it, but where I live, none of the brands you mentioned is available.
    Help! Thank you very much!

    1. Ann Post author

      Hi Nada, So nice to have a visitor from Vienna! I’m including a recipe for sweet tea below. Sweet tea tends to be too sweet for my tastes, but the flavor works beautifully in this marinade. (So don’t be discouraged if you take a sip and find it too sweet for your tea drinking sensibilities! That said, you can err on the lesser side of the recommended amount if preferred.) Let me know if you have further questions, and hope you enjoy!

      1. Nadja

        Hi Ann

        Thank you very much! I really like your blog because your style of cooking reflects my own. And here’s news: My former au pair from Russia is currently visiting, and she told me that she marinates PORK in regular strong black tea (two tea bags per cup), and adds nothing but salt and pepper, though other spices like caraway seeds or allspice can be added to taste. This makes for a great pork roast, I’m told (ha! pork roast is a favourite dish of mine for entertaining in the winter time), but is basically an all-purpose trick. I promise I will try your chicken as well as the Russian tea pork, and will let you know about the experience! That said, you might have to wait a while, since I don’t cook too often these days.


        1. Ann Post author

          Thank you very much, Nadja, and I would love for you to share feedback about both recipes. I’m intrigued by the pork recipe and would love to try it. Please do report back with details whenever you get around to trying!

          1. Nadja

            Hi Ann,
            This is a big success story. I tried this recipe today and everybody in my family loved tit, and we almost fought over the grilled onions because they were so delicious. So the next time I prepare this, I’m thinking of serving the chicken with an onion sauce made up from onions and leftover brine. You see, your recipe is really inspiring!
            Btw what would Southerners typically eat with this, or what is your favorite side dish for this? A salad can’t be wrong, I guess. Today, though, I decided for roasted potatoes and my husband’s favorite vegetables: sautéed strips of 4 red and yellow bell peppers, 2 onions and small clusters of corn cut right from 3 boiled ears, seasoned with nothing but salt and a little bit of brown sugar.
            We found this the meal (we also had tomato soup) perfect for saying goodbye to the summer; the weather suddenly turned cold and to make things worse, school starts tomorrow…

          2. Ann Post author

            Hi Nadja, First of all, I’m thrilled this was such a success and appreciate your wonderful feedback. We often enjoy this with corn on the cob or other seasonal veggies, and you’re right–you can never go wrong with a salad. Another recipe we enjoy is this one for corn spoon bread: https://fountainavenuekitchen.com/corn-spoon-bread/. It’s like a mix between baked corn and cornbread, although regular cornbread or muffins would be nice, too.
            It recently turned cool here, too, and school has begun. I wasn’t quite ready either!

  4. Jen Post author

    Saw this recipe in the morning paper, grabbed the ingredients on my grocery run and marinated the chicken all day. Simply delicious! Looking forward to leftovers. Thank you for another foolproof recipe!