Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Cocktail Camp!

I recently presented at the second annual Cocktail Camp PDX, a day-long series of seminars in Portland geared toward the home bar/spirits enthusiast. I, along with Columbine Quillen, a rockstar of a bartender/blogger from Bend, Oregon, talked about homemade syrups, sodas, bitters and tinctures. Columbine wrote about her part of the presentation here, so I won't attempt to paraphrase her, but I will say her low-tech methods of extraction and distillation are fascinating.

As for my side of things, I spoke about understanding the science behind sugar, fruit and spice, and how to exploit that science to create the best-tasting syrups possible. I must give credit to Darcy O'Neil and Harold McGee for the bulk of my content. I refer to the research both of them have done constantly. I hope I have done them justice in condensing and explaining what I feel are the pertinent aspects of syrup making.
Here is a diagram of a sucrose molecule (sugar). It is comprised of a fructose molecule and a glucose molecule bonded together. When you heat it with water, you begin the inversion process whereby those bonds are broken, and you end up with fructose-glucose syrup, also known as invert syrup. It takes a while to fully invert, but heating it at all makes it partially invert. Sucrose is more viscous than either fructose or glucose. Therefore, if you make simple syrup by combining equal parts sugar and cold water and stirring or shaking until dissolved rather than heating, your simple syrup will be more viscous. Cold-dissolved simple syrup is molecularly different, and in my opinion, superior, than when it is heated.

This is a diagram of a fruit cell. The important part is the vacuole in the center that holds the good juicy part inside. Remember in the 90s, when every other bar had big jars of infused vodka on the back bar? After soaking for a couple of weeks, the liquid tasted fruity and delicious. But take a bite of the soaked fruit itself and it tasted terrible, like alcoholic fiber. The reason is the difference in sugar content between the fruit juice inside those vacuoles and the alcohol itself. When the sugar content (and here we're talking fructose) is higher inside the fruit than outside, the juice will cross the cell walls via osmosis, collapsing those cells, and mix with the surrounding liquid. Thus the tasty infusion yet limp, anemic-looking fruit. In syrup making, this is what you want happening in those cell walls. You're after the juice, not the fiber. Simmer chopped fruit in water first, strain out and discard the remains, then add sugar. This will help you get all the good stuff out of the fruit.

The opposite of this is true as well. If your goal is to make delicious sweetened fruit, say, brandied cherries for example, you need to add enough sugar to the brandy so that it exceeds the natural sugar content of the cherries. The sugar then will cross the cell walls via osmosis, this time into them, bulking up those cells and creating that lovely “snap” to the skin that is so appealing in amarene cherries.

However, if you want to make a syrup from a spice, it is the essential oils in that spice you want to bring into your syrup. Oil has carbon in it, as does sugar. Water does not. As Darcy O'Neil explained to me, “like dissolves like,” so if you simmer that spice in a combination of sugar and water, the sugar will help draw out more of the aromatic compounds in the spice than simmering in water alone.

How this works for syrup-making is that if you want to make, say, a strawberry-black pepper syrup, you chop up the strawberries, simmer them in water until they are limp and pale, strain them out and discard them, then add sugar and coarsely crushed black pepper. Simmer that until you have the flavor you want. Fine-strain and enjoy!

The event overall was a great success; I had a lot of fun giving the presentation. (Actually, I nervously paced and bit my nails until it was my turn, then apologized about a dozen times for being such a nerd.) But people seemed into it nonetheless. I hope I am invited back next year!


Ken said...

It's not as simple as "like dissolves like." Oil has hydrogen and oxygen in it too, just like water. But sugar doesn't dissolve readily in oil.

In the case of making beer, sugar is needed to isomerize (change the molecular shape of) bitter flavoring components. The changed molecules are more soluble in water. Perhaps this is happening in spice syrups as well.

Ken said...

I think you (and other bartenders) were much more aware of the infused vodkas than the average person. I remember the explosion being much more recent; mid to late 2000s. Maybe I was just drinking at less upscale establishments back in the 90s.

jennifer colliau said...

Hi Ken,

Does the sugar used in beer making change the ions in the bittering components from negative to positive? Is that why they are more soluble in water? I know I oversimplified some things in my explanation, but I didn't want to lose anyone in my overly geeky presentation as it was. Plus, the "like dissolves like" term came from a chemist, and makes the minutia of all this easier to wrap the brain around, no?

Ken said...

Sorry for the late response.

I don't know a ton about brewing chemistry. I tried to research it, and I just found a lot of statements without explanation. People say you need some sugar to extract the bitterness from hops. I can't tell if the sugar helps isomerize (rearrange molecules to make them more stable and soluble) the bitter compounds or whether the isomerized compounds are just more soluble in sugar-water than plain water.

In this reaction, I don't think the molecules go from negative to positive. They go from non-polar to polar. It might be either negative or positive; water can dissolve either.

Alton Scott said...

Nice and informative information. Good work keep it up !!

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