True to their name, simple syrups are an easy way to make your home cocktails, lemonades and other sweet treats more delicious. Because they are fundamentally so basic — just sugar and water — simple syrups offer endless opportunities for infusing flavors to make them even more creative and delicious.
“It’s the most simple base, but that base means you can add any flavor you want to it,” said Johanna Corman, co-owner of Vena’s Fizz House in Portland. “It’s not like it’s a big production and time consuming thing. It’s not processed, it’s just so much better.”
Making your own simple syrup will not only open up doors to creativity in your kitchen and home bar, but it will also help to save you money.
“We do sell plain old simple syrup in bottles [and] people will come in and ask [for it] and I have to bite my tongue,” Corman said. “It’s like, ‘Oh my gosh you can make this for pennies.’ If you like to cook, it’s so easy and so cheap to make your own and then you can make it the way you want to make it.”
The basics of simple syrup
At the most fundamental level, simple syrup is just sugar dissolved in water.
“Homemade simple syrup first and foremost is about ratios,” said Michael Pazdon, creative director at the Wallingford Dram in Kittery. “A regular simple syrup is your choice of 1 to 1, or 2 to 1 sugar to water. The 2 to 1 is called a rich simple syrup.”
You can measure the sugar and water with cups, but bars will often measure the both by weight.
“I like to weigh it out into grams and do equal parts by weight,” said Marcus Alcantara, bar manager at Bramhall in Portland. “You get a very consistent product.”
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You can also mix up the type of sugar that you use.
“I have a rule at the bar that I love: brown liquor, brown sugar,” Alcantara said. “There is something nice to be said about a pure cane, raw demerara sugar. It has this richness, this caramel flavor to it. You can get the classic Domino brown sugar and that would be a lighter flavor and a lighter sweetness.”
You could even use honey, agave or even maple syrup as your sugar base.
“For our margaritas, we use an agave simple syrup, which is equal parts by weight agave syrup and water,” Alcantara said. “Same thing with honey. Honey is very thick and it’s very hard to get that in a cocktail because it’s so viscous. We mix that with equal parts water and we get a really nice simple syrup.”
The technique for dissolving the sugar in water is a matter of preference. You can use heat to dissolve the sugar more quickly in water.
“I prefer the hot method because it’s more convenient,” Alcantara said. “The sugar will dissolve so much easier into warm or hot water than it will into cold water. Our process is to heat the water and then I weigh out my sugar, weigh out my water and then I’ll steep any herbs or spices into there.”
Sam Schipani shows how to make homemade simple syrup. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN
However, you have to be careful not to heat your simple syrup too much. Pazdon said that the water might boil off and change the ratio of water and sugar — and the flavor of your simple syrup.
“I think people tend to boil, boil, boil things,” Corman said. “Don’t. Think of it more like a tea you’re steeping your flavors. Bring it up to almost boil and let it sit to make sure your sugar is all dissolved.”
You can also put the sugar in cool water and agitate it until the sugar dissolves.
“You don’t have to boil it down,” Pazdon said. “Just mix it together, shake it up, wait until it’s dissolved and you’re good to go. If you’re using Domino crystal sugar you can do that in like 40 seconds. If you’re using demerara, muscovado or turbinado [sugar] it will take a little bit longer.”
Once you have the base for your simple syrup, you can infuse it with flavors. The possibilities are endless: floral, spicy, fruity, smoky, whatever you can imagine.
Corman said that it is best to keep it simple, but be creative.
“Don’t go crazy and mix everything because then it gets all muddled,” Corman said. “Start with simple ingredients first. The more local you can get the better your syrup is going to be [but] if you only have frozen strawberry or blueberry, you can absolutely use those.”
A flavor combination Alcantara likes is a spiced simple syrup for “a Tiki style cocktail” at Bramhall, which uses spices such as allspice, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg and star anise.
“Ground it up and mix it into your simple syrup, dissolve it or let it steep if you like,” Alcantara said. “I’ve seen people do habanero simple syrup, so it’s sweet and spicy at the same time, but you have to be careful because it’s very spicy.”
If you are using spices, try to find whole, fresh spices, though you can use dried spices in a pinch.
“You should buy whole spices and grind them in a spice grinder or grate them,” Pazdon said. “Your McCormick spices or whatever on the grocery store shelves are stale. They’ve been sitting around for a long time. That surface area and oxygen content has begun to leach their potency away.”
You can also use whole herbs and fruit for simple syrups. Corman said that she will mash the berries first to “get the juices flowing,” then bring her sugar and water up to a simmer until the sugar dissolves, take it off heat and let the mashed berries steep for about 24 hours before straining.
The amount of material that you add will depend on what you are making. Corman said that for fresh herbs, fruit or flowers, she will use the same amount of fruit as she uses water and sugar. Because dried herbs are more concentrated, she would only use about a quarter of the materials compared to sugar and water.
However, it does depend on your tastes. You might need to experiment to figure out what you like. Corman said that a good example would be with ginger.
“Some people like rip-your-throat-out ginger and some people like a subtle amount,” she said. “I keep saying think of it just like cooking with spice. The syrup is almost going to be the flavor of the spice.”
Alcantara, for example, said that he had to experiment a few times before he got his basil simple syrup right.
“It took me three tries and I was finally like, ‘You know what, I’m going to add a truckload of basil,’” Alcantara said. “It is just trial and error and it all depends on how much you want to taste that flavor.”
Once you have your materials, let them steep to infuse the flavors.
“I just let it sit in there for an hour, sometimes overnight if it’s a really delicate flavor,” Corman said. “We had never done lilac syrup and that’s my favorite flavor in the whole world [so we tried it last spring]. We found that you really need to steep it for at least 24 hours. It’s just a very delicate flavor and it needed to steep a lot longer than the other ones did.”
Resist the urge to boil the materials, though, as it can impact the flavor of the syrup — for example, in ginger simple syrup.
“This is important because ginger has this compound in it called gingerol, which gives ginger that wasabi kick when it’s raw [that boiling would make it lose],” Pazdon said.
Once you have prepared simple syrup, you can store it in your refrigerator for up to a month in clean containers.
“Make sure your sanitation is good,” Pazdon said. “Make sure that your containers are well-washed and dry. You don’t want to pick something off the shelf that you haven’t washed in a while.”
Using infused simple syrup
Obviously, simple syrups are great for cocktails and other beverages. Pazdon also recommended using infused simple syrups for flavored lemonades.
“You’re going to put sugar in there right?” Pazdon said. “Why not flavor that sugar that you’re using with something else.”
Simple syrups can be used beyond drinks as well. Alcantara said that if you are making jams, compotes, icing, ice cream or other sugary confections, you can use simple syrup in place of sugar.
You can use simple syrup for sauces that have sugar in them. Pazdon said that ginger simple syrup works well with any variety of Asian-themed sauces.
Another great place for flavored simple syrup is a fancy cheese board.
“They’re so good drizzled on cheese,” Corman said. “If you’re making an herb, rosemary thyme syrup and you have that with your cheese, it’s wonderful.”