Syrups, Part 1: Herbs
“What’s your recipe for mint syrup?”
I was asked this the other day, and was embarrassed to realize that I had a passable recipe but never really examined it. This is to say, I knew it was a fine way to infuse mint into sugar, but I didn’t know if it was the ideal way. Which is, I admit, inexcusably lazy.
There are 100 different ways to make an mint syrup — literally any combination of water, sugar, and mint will make one — but the question lingered, because we cocktail people tend get particular about this kind of thing. How can I make it best?
All that follows is a piacular and demonstrative answer to that question.
TL;DR: if you’ve got things to do and just want to know the answer, scroll down or click here.
Herb-infused simple syrup is a clean, easy, consistent way to add flavor to otherwise straightforward drinks, particularly when using fresh herbs are inconvenient or otherwise unavailable. If I’m making one mojito, I use mint. If I’m making 100 mojitos, mint syrup starts to look a little better.
With any syrup, the first thing we do is ask a couple fundamental questions, as herbs need to be treated differently than strawberries or limes or nutmeg:
- What exactly do we want out of our ingredients?
- What is our solvent?
- What is our method?
With herbs, what we want are the bright, fragrant oils. Oil transfer won’t happen much in plain water, because they’re non-soluble… you need a solvent, like oil, salt, sugar, or alcohol. What’s more, you probably want some amount of heat to catalyze the exchange, while keeping in mind that the oils are very delicate and should be treated as such.
Let me save you the Google work and tell you the internet is, predictably, all over the place. Some, like Epicurious, say to muddle the mint in sugar, let the sugar draw out the oil, then add water and dissolve (as with the oleo saccharum). Others, like The Hungry Mouse, say to bring the simple syrup to a boil, remove it from heat, and steep the mint as you would tea. Still others say to cook the mint, sugar, and water all together: see Chow, a different Epicurious recipe, About.com, the Wannabe Chef, the Shiksa, and many more.
So, as with all such situations, the only thing left to do is make one.
3g mint (10-12 leaves or so)
I ruled out the obvious bad ideas (the “put the ingredients in a bowl and walk away” theory, etc) and made the three most promising syrups:
- Muddled: muddled mint in sugar, waited 30min for the naturally oleophilic sugar to leech the oils, then added water, dissolved sugar, and strained solids. No heat.
- Boiled: brought sugar, water, and mint to a boil, let simmer for 5 min, removed from heat and strained.
- Steeped: brought sugar and water to a boil, removed from heat, added mint and let cool to room temp.
The amounts were the same for all three, so hopefully we can get a semi-scientific comparison.
Color is Pale yellow/white, like hay, or sunbleached stone. Nose is faint… a bit too faint, but nice bright mint. A little vegetal. Maybe sat too long on the sugar. Light on the midpalate, with a nice clean minty finish.
This had been my method of choice. Until now, anyway. It’s nice and bright, but not too much flavor. It’s also extremely easy to let it sit too long, at which point the mint begins to smell like mulch.
Color is deep, full yellow, more toward apple juice. Not much of a nose, strangely. Boiled off the aromatics? When tasted, it is as suspected: it’s loud but not bright, with more plant bitterness — there’s only one note, and that’s cooked mint.
Much more extraction here, obviously. But that doesn’t necessarily make it better. One of the chief delights of herbs is their brightness, and this more or less takes that all away.
Color is yellow with light green tints, like medium-strength green tea. Nose is much stronger than the other two — as with the others, there’s still some slight vegetal notes, but it has a much brighter mint flavor than the boiled one and much louder than the muddled one.
Baby bear’s porridge: halfway between not enough and too much. This is both bright and loud. The best and most flavorful syrup, by far.
Confirmation/drinking time: I made a Southside with each syrup, and tried them side by side.
2oz Beefeater Gin
0.75oz lemon juice
0.75oz mint syrup
Shaken and fine strained, up.
- Muddled: Barely any nose. You’ve got to look for the mint. Gin more takes over.
- Boiled: Mint is loud and low like a boat horn. It could almost pass for one of the botanicals of the gin.
- Steeped: The best. By far. Bright mint nose. Mint shows up mid to late palate, almost like a wintergreen sensation. Vegetal-flavors still come through a little, but the overwhelming impression is of fresh, bright, mint.
Steep the mint.
Herbs are fragile. Heat changes them. So we want to use a small amount of heat to catalyze the oil exchange but not enough to significantly alter the flavor.
How to make the best possible mint syrup: bring equal parts sugar and water to a boil. Remove from heat, allow 15-30 seconds for the temperature to come down, then stir in lots of mint — more than you’d think, about 20-30 leaves/cup, as quantity has a lot to do with volume of the flavor. Cover immediately, and let cool to room temperature. Once cool, strain out solids, bottle, and refrigerate.
Hidden door #4: a Southside with regular simple syrup and actual fresh mint.
The best. Obviously. This brings a brightness that the syrups can’t touch. Front, mid, finish… all mint. Plays a role in all of it. The best by a landslide. So, the conclusion, so clear it could be seen from space: when possible, use fresh mint.
Hey bartender friends! Lemonade aficionados! Syrup junkies! Do you have a better way? Does your mint syrup make my mint syrup look like a little bitch? Leave a comment and tell me about it. Like I said, I want best.