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Syrups, Part 1: Herbs

January 6, 2014
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“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.

Herbs

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:

  1. What exactly do we want out of our ingredients?
  2. What is our solvent?
  3. 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.

For the trails, I used mint because (1) it’s delicious, and (2) it’s delicate enough that the conclusions here can be applied to basil or lemongrass or pretty much anything else.

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.

Which one?

Everyone Gif

The Experiments

3oz sugar
3oz water
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:

  1. 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.
  2. Boiled: brought sugar, water, and mint to a boil, let simmer for 5 min, removed from heat and strained.
  3. Steeped: brought sugar and water to a boil, removed from heat, added mint and let cool to room temp.

[syrups1] procedure

The amounts were the same for all three, so hopefully we can get a semi-scientific comparison.

[syrups1] cooling

Results:

(1) Muddled:

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.

(2) Boiled:

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.

(3) Steeped:

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.

Verification:

Confirmation/drinking  time: I made a Southside with each syrup, and tried them side by side.

Southside
2oz Beefeater Gin
0.75oz lemon juice
0.75oz mint syrup
Shaken and fine strained, up.

[syrups1] taste tests

  1. Muddled: Barely any nose. You’ve got to look for the mint. Gin more takes over.
  2. Boiled: Mint is loud and low like a boat horn. It could almost pass for one of the botanicals of the gin.
  3. 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.

Conclusions:

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.

Bonus Truth:

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.

Post Script:

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.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. September 27, 2014 7:44 pm

    May I simply say what a comfort to find a person that really knows what
    they are talking about on the web. You certainly understand how to bring an issue to
    light and make it important. More and more people need
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    I was surprised that you are not more popular given that you certainly have
    the gift.

  2. Freddy N. permalink
    October 12, 2014 8:25 am

    I use steeped mint for mint jelly and to add to tea. It’s the BEST way to get strong mint flavor without the “boiled grass” taste. Glad I found your site – I love gin but never heard of a Southside. Going to try one this afternoon!

    • October 12, 2014 4:15 pm

      Fantastic! Enjoy that Southside, it’s one of the great pleasures of the world.

      On Sun, Oct 12, 2014 at 9:25 AM, Drinks and Drinking wrote:

      >

  3. Zach permalink
    November 30, 2014 12:51 pm

    I routinely make a handful of various syrups at my place of work, and have found myself toying with different methods as you’ve described. One result that I am trying to eliminate is the browning of the syrup (Rosemary in particular) over time, caused by oxidation. Ive found that steeping the Rosemary in boiling water for 20-30 seconds, removing and blanching for 60 seconds in ice water first, and then following your description of steeping in hot syrup down to room temperature over time prevents the oxidation, although cuts a bit of flavor out of the syrup. I’ll catch that god damned dragon eventually, I guess.

    • December 3, 2014 11:08 am

      How fascinating! I didn’t even touch oxidation control… does your blanching technique work for leafy herbs like mint, or just sturdier ones like rosemary?

      And have you considered powdered ascorbic acid? I’ve never worked with it myself, but I believe that’s how many bigger companies solve the oxidation question.

      • Zach permalink
        December 3, 2014 1:38 pm

        I actually got the blanching method from Morganthaler’s Bar Book where he suggests that after blanching to add the leaves sans the stems (specifically mint) to normal simple syrup and blend for a minute and let sit, then strain out the solids. I haven’t tried his method in full yet however. Hadn’t thought about ascorbic acid that may be worth a trial!

  4. August 6, 2015 5:13 am

    Way late to the game, but when I’m doing batched mojitos, I make my own mint extract from fresh mint. Basically just steep mint in really high proof alcohol for a few days. Then use that. I still wouldn’t say it’s as good as fresh, but it’s shelf-stable (mint all year baby!) and easy, and it lets me force carbonate a keg of mojito at a time,

    • August 6, 2015 1:32 pm

      Yeah, in Scott Beattie’s book he talks about adding a few drops of mint essential oils to simple to make a mint syrup. Sounds cool to me. I bought some but haven’t tried it yet.

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