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!

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Margarita, aka the Tequila Daisy

There's been a bit of a hot debate going on for a while about constructing the perfect margarita. Tommy's in San Francisco promotes their 100% agave margarita heavily, which uses agave syrup instead of orange liqueur to sweeten it. It makes sense; eliminating the orange aspect makes the tequila flavor shine through. But there's a problem with this.

As you dive into the world of classic cocktails, you begin to recognize cocktail families. Some are familiar, some, less so:

Sour: spirit, citrus, sweetener, often egg white
Fizz: sour with a carbonated aspect (soda, sparkling wine, etc.)
Cocktail: spirit, sugar, bitters, water (dilution from ice suffices)
Improved/Fancy Cocktail: spirit, flavored sweetener, bittering component, perhaps an aperitif wine...

You start to recognize the patterns everywhere. You read the menu description of a bar's "Apple Orchard" (Calvados, Grand Marnier, lemon juice, orange bitters) and you understand that it is just a modified sidecar. This is both an advantage and a disadvantage. It's great to know these formulae. Understanding what makes a sour delicious means it's easy to begin to substitute the base spirit for another, swap flavored sweeteners or acid, etc...

It also means it's a lot harder to be surprised. So when the Tommy's-style margarita started making the rounds in San Francisco, I was a little confused. Because despite David Wondrich's article about the history of the tequila daisy, people still don't seem to talk about the fact that "margarita" is the Spanish word for "daisy." And a daisy is an entire class of cocktail, comprised of spirit, citrus and flavored sweetener.

The most common sweeteners for daisies, historically, are yellow Chartreuse, grenadine, raspberry syrup and... curaçao. Curaçao, the orange liqueur in said margarita.

I like a Tommy's margarita. I do. Quality tequila, fresh lime and clean sweetener? Delicious. It's just that I don't think it's actually a margarita. The curaçao (or whatever version of orange liqueur you use) is what makes it a margarita, aka a tequila daisy, and not just a tequila daiquiri.

For the record, here's how I make a margarita. (Note that I offset the citrus with simple syrup. You can invert the proportions of lime and curaçao and eliminate the simple syrup, but this makes the drink a bit boozy for my taste.)

1 1/2 oz 100% agave tequila
1 oz fresh lime juice
3/4 oz Cointreau or good curaçao
1/4 oz 1-to-1 simple syrup

'Shake all ingredients over ice and strain into a double old-fashioned glass filled with fresh ice and rimmed with salt if desired, or strain into a chilled cocktail glass or coupe.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Citric Acid

As I mentioned before, I treat my ingredients like a cook rather than a food producer. Yet when you get into food production, as I have been doing while expanding my Small Hand Foods syrup line, there are a few scientific things you must pay attention to.

Ph values are the level of acidity in a product. If you are going to seal anything in a jar or bottle, one of the ways to make it safe is to insure that the ph is 4.5 or lower. Botulism (botulinum toxin) thrives in a low-acid, oxygen-free environment. Once you expose a food product to oxygen, say, by taking a jar of jam off your shelf and opening it, keeping it refrigerated after opening prevents other bacteria from getting in there. All of this science must be applied when creating a new food product that you intend to bottle.

But food production folk are a funny lot. They know how to keep food safe, but they aren't chefs. They want everything super scientific. I needed to lower the ph of my gum syrup to make it safe to bottle. And every single person I encountered told me to use citric acid. They said that citric acid is essentially concentrated lemon juice. So I bought some and tried it.

I don't care what people say; citric acid is nothing at all like lemon juice. If you have access to it, mix a little in some water and taste it. Does it taste like lemon juice? Not even remotely. It tastes acrid and bitter with a dry, metallic aftertaste. Like nibbling on an unripe lime, with its peel, dipped in metal shavings and wrapped in brown paper. Quite frankly, I don't want that in my syrup.

Actual lemon juice, contrary to what the food scientists say, contains citric acid, yes, but also malic, tartaric and oxalic acids, plus sugar, fiber and a trace of protein. And vitamins and minerals. Using lemon juice as an ingredient adds so much more than just a ph reducer. And adding enough to a bottle of gum syrup to make it safe adds less than a teaspoon per bottle: a couple drops per drink. In exchange I get the safety of the acidity without the metallic, bitter taste. It's a fair exchange to me.

I've begun to look more closely at product labels and am stunned by the number of edibles that use citric acid. Out of all the varieties of hummus now sold at Trader Joe's, only one uses actual lemon juice rather than citric acid. There are also so many products that seem to me to unnecessarily use an acidifier. Flavored syrups like Rose's or Torani add citric acid because there is no actual juice in them, therefore nothing to bring the ph down to safe levels. But fruit juice is already acidic; I can't see any purpose in adding citric acid to a drink or syrup already containing fruit juice. Yet there they are.

I do not claim that there is anything unhealthy or dangerous with citric acid. It is typically derived from lemon pith, although through a fairly refined process. My bias here is about flavor, and that I prefer to drink the way I eat, with a concentration on whole, real foods. In addition, to me lemon juice just tastes better. So that's what I choose to put into my syrups. Food scientists be damned.