I’ve got another recipe post for you all, this ones not quite as easy as altering cake box ingredients, but I thought it would be fitting for many people’s upcoming spring and summer celebrations.
That recipe is natural flavoured syrups. We’re going to cover two types here: infused syrups and juice-based syrups. These are also going to be simple syrups – equal amounts of water and sugar by volume. (Though this measurement is skewed to more sugar-heavy when using juice.) I prefer this ratio because it’s easy to measure, keeps well in the fridge, and has almost always worked well in mixed drinks, flavoured lemonades, sodas, and as tea sweetener. However, if you find these syrups cloying, you can go as low as 10% sugar (1 part sugar to 9 parts water) and still water bath can it to keep it shelf stable for a long time. (Freezing is also an option, but if you make many syrups, you will quickly run out of freezer space.) 10-20% syrups are easier to ferment, easier to avoid over-sweetening things, and can be used to make lightly-flavoured waters or to add an extra flavour to already sweet fruit juice and punch.
To put it simply, though syrups are slightly more complicated to make than box cake (especially when we start juicing our own fruit), they’re also extremely forgiving and can be used in lots of stuff. Simple syrups can also be kept shelf stable for years when canned, and lighter syrups will last almost as long.
Method 0: Simplest Syrup
Just for a baseline and to give you an idea of what we’re doing, here is the recipe for an unflavoured simple syrup:
- 1 part water
- 1 part sugar
- Heat water until very hot, but it need not be boiling.
- Add sugar. Stir until dissolved, then remove from heat.
- Pour into storage container, ideally a glass bottle, but up to you.
That’s it. That’s all it takes to make simple syrup, a standard ingredient for cocktails and certain desserts.
Method 1: Infused Syrup
Here, we’re basically using a tea and using that in place of the water in a simple syrup. You’ll want to make a strong tea. Normally, you would use ~1-2 Tbsp of material per cup of tea. But you don’t want the flavour to be overwhelmed by the sugar or become too subtle in whatever you’re using the syrup in. So keep the material and purpose in mind. For that reason, I can’t give an exact recipe, only guidelines. Feel free to ask questions!
If, for example, you wanted to make a cinnamon syrup, you could freshly grind as little as ½ Tbsp cinnamon bark in an electric spice grinder (manual isn’t strong enough) for a subtle flavour or 1 Tbsp for a punchier flavour. But the strength of freshly ground cinnamon is too much if you go as high as 2 Tbsp per 1 cup. You’ll want water that is boiling or near-boiling, and you’ll want to steep it for 10-15 minutes. If you have preground cinnamon that’s kind of old (doesn’t knock you out with its scent when you open the package), you’ll want to use 2 Tbsp instead. You can also leave ground cinnamon in the infusion and the final syrup instead of straining it.
However, if you have cinnamon bark and no grinder, you’re going to want a decoction. That means using 2-3 Tbsp per cup of water, using boiling water, and letting it steep for at least 30 minutes. You can also “cold brew” it if you want. But you do need to strain out the bark before making the syrup.
By contrast, other herbs will have less strong flavours than cinnamon. Delicate, leafy ingredients generally need less material, less time, and water that is merely hot, while thick woody ingredients generally need more matieral, more time, and water that is boiling. But it also depends on flavour. Though fennel has a similar flavour to star anise, you’d need about twice as much fennel as the cinnamon, while star anise could have the same amount. Cardamom, by contrast works best as a subtle flavour and should probably be used as part of a mixture of herbs.
In another example, if you want to infuse dried fruit, you should use 2 Tbsp per cup of boiling or near-boiling water for 5-10 minutes. Strain the fruit out before making your syrup. You can add it back in later when bottling the syrup, but chunks get in the way of cooking syrup, I find.
And then, of course, there’s floral infusions. I’m going to use three examples here: hibiscus, lavender, and rose. Hibiscus has a strong, fruity, sour, and slightly astringent flavour. You shouldn’t need more than 1 Tbsp per cup of water. It’s also a fairly hardy material, unlike most flowers, and can be infused in near-boiling water for 5-10 minutes. Lavender, by contrast, has a very delicate floral flavour that’s easily masked by others. You’ll need at least 2 Tbsp for it, depending on how much you want it to be noticeable and what your using it for. It’s also much more delicate and should use hot water (80-90°C) for 5-7 minutes.
Now, let’s look at rose. It’s a delicate flower with floral flavour, like lavender. But it also has an astringency to it that can make it overwhelming if you use too much. Therefore, you want to use only 1 Tbsp but to infuse it in hot water for 5-7 minutes. This syrup should absolutely only be used in compliment with other flavours. Trust me, you’ll think you like rose until you give yourself too much of it straight.
And, finally, yes, you can absolutely make an infusion syrup out of your favourite tea. Follow the directions as you normally would, but use twice as much tea per cup as you normally like it.
Of course, like I said, these are general directions and depend on what you plan to use the syrup for. If you’re saturating a cake, you want a stronger flavour for a chocolate cake than for a vanilla one. You’d also want stronger flavours for cocktails and lemonade than for waters and sodas.
Anyway, once you have finally made your infusion, however you make it, just follow the same directions as for the simple syrup. 1 part infused water to 1 part sugar. Dissolve sugar. Remove from heat.
You can reduce the amount of sugar, as I mentioned much earlier. However, if you want to include whole botanicals in your presentation (such as putting a spring of lavender in a syrup bottle, then pouring syrup on top), you really should go with the 1:1 ratio as it is the better preservative.
Method 2: Fruit syrup
There are many ways of making fruit syrups, but here I’m still talking sugar-based syrups. Other versions will use a gelling agent instead. It really depends on what you want to use it for and what your sweetness tolerance is.
As fruit juice already has sugar in it, a 1:1 ratio technically gets you a sugar content greater than 50%. As a home cook, it’s impossible to measure exactly what this sugar content is. For me, I basically only use fruit syrup for pancakes, sodas, and cocktails, so it doesn’t bother me. But if you want less sugar, I’d suggest going with at least 2 parts juice to 1 part sugar. If you’re doing fruit preserved in syrup, the 2:1 ratio works just fine as a preservative.
Now, the recipe here is just like the others, but with juice in place of water:
- 1 or 2 parts fruit juice
- 1 part sugar
- Heat the juice but do not let it boil.
- Add sugar and stir until dissolved.
- Remove from heat and pour into container. Whole washed fruit or dried herbs can be included in the container.
Where it gets complicated is in discussing what kind of juice I mean. I, personally, use a Victorio hand-crank food strainer that I got for $49 USD at a Mennonite store that was local to me at the time. I’ve included a photo so you can see what sort of machine I’m talking about. They are available on Amazon, but check your local stores first, if you can; they’re often cheaper. The brand “Roma” also makes one. For strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, etc, you’ll need to buy the berry screen attachment. For grapes, you’ll want to buy the grape spiral and use it with the tomato screen that it comes with. For cherries and other stone fruit, you’ll want to pit them first, and then you can use the spiral and screen that come with it. Apples cannot be juiced with this strainer, only sauced. You can however, use the applesauce screen, make apple sauce, then strain it with cheesecloth or a jelly bag.
You can also smash your fruit in a pot, cook it a bit (maybe with a little added water, depending), and then smash that through a wire colander to get your juice. You can also use a jelly bag if you’re familiar with making pulp-free jelly. There’s also a steaming method that I’m not familiar with beyond the fact that it exists. These will all get you transparent juices.
Juice from an electric juicer is different. It contains a lot more pureed fruit pulp. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that – fruit pulp is good and healthy. But I do want to warn you that it will make your syrup substantially thicker. If you want your syrup to pour easily, you’ll want to water down this juice 1 or 2 parts juice to 1 part water.
You can also buy juices. But this can be expensive and usually has added sugar. First, if the juice is cloudy and not transparent, you’ll want to water it down as in the previous paragraph, especially for a pourable syrup. Secondly, unless you are absolutely sure there’s no added sugar at all, you’ll want to use 2 parts juice (or watered-down juice) to 1 part sugar.
What about mixed flavours?
You can absolutely mix different fruits or herbs together. I will warn though, that if the materials cook too differently (you want rose and cardamom or hibiscus and strawberry, for example), consider making separate syrups and then blending them together.
Can I use honey instead?
Yes and no. Honey already has water content, so if you need to know the exact water to sugar ratio you’re using (for example, you plan to ferment it, or you’re using it in a baked recipe), then you shouldn’t use honey. For casual use, though? It’s absolutely fine to make a 1:1 or 2:1 syrup with honey. I wouldn’t use ratios with any less honey that that, though, unless you plan on making mead. Because that’s what happens when you water down honey enough.
Can I do this with vegetables?
Absolutely. You’ll do a version of the infusion method where you chop your vegetable into a pot, then cover it with water. Cook it until the vegetable material is mushy. Then, take it off the heat and strain it. Measure out the flavoured water and use it to make your syrup. This is the method I used to make rhubarb syrup.
Can I make a chocolate, caramel, or vanilla syrup?
If you want to make chocolate syrup like Hershey’s, you’re gonna need some dairy in it and a different recipe. But yes, you can absolutely use cacao powder or cacao nibs in an infused syrup.
Vanilla is harder. To get the flavour to come through, you’d have to boil several vanilla beans for a while. It’s much easier to infuse vanilla into alcohol. If you’re determined, though, what I suggest you do is to make a vanilla extract (chopped vanilla bean + vodka, bourbon, or rum + time), then cook out the alcohol without having strained out the vanilla bits yet, then add sugar to make a syrup. Pick out the bits of pod, but leave all that seed gunk in there. Keep in mind, though, I haven’t made this one. I’m making a guess as to how you might do it if you wanted to. I stick to extracts of vanilla, myself.
For caramel, you don’t even have to flavour it. Just measure out your water and sugar as per the simple syrup recipe. Then, divide your sugar in half. Put half the sugar in your pot on low heat and stir constantly until it melts and becomes golden. Then, slowly add water and keep stirring to the until dissolved. (If you add the water all once, the caramel turns into a big chunk and is hard to dissolve. But it will eventually – just keep stirring.) Finally, add the rest of the sugar in, dissolve that, then remove everything from the heat. Tbh, I don’t know why you only caramelize half the sugar, that’s just how I was taught to do it.
And then what?
So I mostly went over this at the beginning, but to finalize everything, here’s an incomplete list of things you can use your syrups for:
- Saturated cakes (this seems to be a southern thing? It’s like a drunken cake but with light syrup instead)
- Use in place of simple syrup in cocktails
- Use in place of sugar and some of the water when making lemonade
- Make a light syrup of lemon juice or sumac “berry” infusion, then water down as needed for lemonade
- Make naturally fermented sodas by adding water and yeast
- Flavour ginger bug or kombucha
- Flavour yogurt
- Flavour soda water
- Use in place of water and sugar in, like, literally any recipe
- Lightly flavour water
- Use in place of sweetener for tea or coffee
- Use a little stripe or swirl of thick syrup on top of any desert to fancy it up
- Add to ice cream
- Sweeten & flavour a punch in one go
- Preserve & flavour fruits
To preserve your syrup at its best, you really should water bath can it. I say this, being a lazy asshole who sticks hers in the fridge more often than not. My rhubarb syrup did eventually mold that way, so take heed. If you’re not going to use it quickly and you want to be sure it won’t go to waste, can it.
Use jelly jars instead of larger jars, as this will mean you won’t have so much extra leftover whenever you open one. Unless you’re a bartender or chef, you probably don’t need a litre of strawberry syrup at any given moment.
Anyway, one it’s jarred, just can it how you do jelly. It’s not complicated or finicky.
You can also preserve fruits in syrup by putting them in a jar, covering with syrup, and water bath canning them the same way you would jelly. I’ve actually preserved blueberries in syrup and then just stuck them in the fridge. As long as the fruit doesn’t touch air, it will be fine. The most certain way to make sure this lasts, however, is pressure canning. But that really isn’t necessary. Even the FDA canning guide says that light syrup is fine for waterbath canning fruit. Make sure you cut large fruits down into dice-sized chunks if preserving them this way.