I’ve gotten very in to cocktails recently, and the evidence is starting to show around our house (Ok, ok – the photo above isn’t from our house – although I wish it were – it’s from our honeymoon). Between the barrels used for aging martinez’s and negronis and the drinks cabinet which is beginning to overflow. I think when you’re starting to accumulate drinks far faster than you can drink them then it’s a sign of either excessive niche shopping (guilty) or insufficient consumption (in our case unlikely). However, this has led me to the wonderful world of sugar syrups, syrups I’ve ended up using not just in cocktails but in soft drinks, salad dressings, sorbets, desserts and even savoury sauces. I’ve got bottles full of sugar syrup waiting for a home and many of them keep for ever.
There are loads of different flavours of sugar syrup, in fact you can make almost any flavour of sugar syrup (some flavours, however, are best left untried – although caramel and pork go brilliantly together in Vietnamese food, I was less convinced by a cocktail I had recently which featured bacon flavoured sugar syrup). However, there are a few basic techniques which will allow you to make any flavour sugar syrups you like. Namely: Infusion, Extraction and Blending.
Infusion Sugar Syrups:
These are the old stalwarts of the sugar syrup range. You start with a rich simple syrup (technical name for equal parts sugar and water heated until the sugar is dissolved – although you can use less sugar I prefer an intense sugar syrup which you then dilute if you want). Then you add a flavouring and infuse just like a tea bag. How fast or how much infusion you get depends on the surface area (chopped up or ground ingredients infuse faster), on the heat (many ingredients infuse faster at higher temperatures), the pressure and the duration of the infusion. At its most basic though, toast some spices and add them to the sugar syrup on a very low heat for 20 minutes and you’ll have a good start. Leave those spices in the sugar syrup for up to a month in the fridge and it will just get more and more intense.
What does it work best for: Firm ingredients which will not dissolve that have strong complex flavours – like spices or citrus peel. It also keeps a very long time due to the high sugar content – a few months in the fridge easily once strained.
What doesn’t it work for: Ingredients which will degrade (E.g., soft fruits – although the syrup left over after poaching pears is delicious) or ingredients with “floral top notes”. These very volatile flavours will dissipate during the infusing process.
My personal favourite: Orange peel, cinnamon and clove. Lightly toasted cloves and cinnamon with some orange peel makes a sugar syrup that just makes that Manhattan or Martinez something else. Rye whiskey, blood orange liqueur and this sugar syrup is a deadly concoction that you heard here first folks.
Extraction Sugar Syrups
Both sugar and salt have properties which draw out moisture from ingredients. This property is used extensively to cure meats and make charcuterie. However, this is really exciting when you’re making sugar syrups because, when the moisture is extracted, flavour comes with it and delicate flavours are locked into the sugar syrup. This process is great for turning water-rich fruits and vegetables into extremely subtle and delicious sugar syrups. Flavours will be locked in that you otherwise could not possibly preserve if you were heating. The more thinly things are sliced the better for extraction to work its magic. You’ll be surprised at how quickly this happens, if you leave a couple of very thinly sliced cucumbers (like on a mandolin) in a sealed zip-lock bag (or even better, vacuum sealed bag) with around a cup of caster sugar and you’ll have a lot of sugar syrup within an hour or so. It’s even better with a few sprigs of mint thrown in for good measure.
What does it work best for: Ingredients which are very water rich like cucumber or soft fruits like berries. In particular you want ingredients whose taste profiles are floral or delicate in nature.
What doesn’t it work for: Anything that is woody or dry or has flavours that are more earthy. For example; dried spices, herbs (can be used to flavour but not as main ingredient), citrus fruit or peel and hard fruit like apples or pears.
My personal favourite: I have to admit to having two favourites. The first is cucumber and lemon thyme. It’s so simple and easy but is thoroughly delicious as a cordial base, mixed into gin cocktails or mixed with a little vinegar and used a salad dressing for diced cucumber. The second is strawberries. I love strawberries in the summer but often find adding blitzed strawberries to drinks a bit of a drag as it’s too thick and straining blitzed strawberries is a complete ball-ache. However, thinly slice them and leave with sugar and the resulting juice is simply divine – mixed with some champers it’s delicious. However, my favourite is to mix the strawberry sugar syrup with some elderflower liqueur and a touch of Frangelico (hazelnut liqueur). It’s unbelievable and you have to try it!
Blended sugar syrups
Probably the simplest way to make sugar syrups is simply to blend or juice the ingredient and adjust the sweetness with sugar. You can also reduce the juice to make a thicker more syrup like liquid. This works very well if you want a rich, concentrated flavour – in fact I often use it as the base of a sauce. Reduced apple juice makes an amazing base for barbecue sauce or a pork and caramel sauce. With some fruits, after blending you will need to strain to remove stray seeds – no-one wants a raspberry seed stuck in their cocktail! This will make thicker syrups which are sometimes too intense for delicate cocktails but definitely have their place.
What does it work best for: Fruits – in particularly soft fruits or fruit juice. It can also work well for things like citrus peel if you’re willing to spend a lot of time waiting for them to strain through multiple layers of muslin (check this video out)
What doesn’t it work for: Any hard or dry ingredient like spices. Without a lot of straining or clairifcation it can be difficult to get a “subtle” flavour.
My personal favourite: I’m a sucker for a bellini. In particular a roasted nectarine bellini. I roast the nectarines (here’s the recipe) and then blend them and pass through a sieve. The resulting purée might need a little sugar but then is amazing in the bottom of a champers glass.
Do you have any favourite sugar syrups or cocktails that use them – let me know! I’ll also be posting a few favourite cocktail recipes with some sugar syrups on the timedeating facebook page so do hop on over and give it a like www.facebook.com/timedeating