Tasty Science

DSC03536_2I used to be a scientist. Didn’t know that one, did you? Yup, racks of test tubes, bubbling beakers hovering over bunsen burners, teeny critters swimming around microscope slides, white lab coat. Well actually, no. More like hip-waders, knee-deep in icy low-tide water, turning over rocks to see the squishy things underneath, and dreams of a red knitted cap on my head. Or, more often, scooping belly up freshwater guppies out of tanks in an effort to acclimate them to saltwater  — which apparently, they didn’t. Regardless of the setting, a scientist I was. At least one in training. And after I was handed my sheepskin and sent out into the world filled with my Cousteau-esque aspirations, those lab-coated days pretty much ended. That is, until a few years ago.

Right before I threw everything I owned in boxes and headed west, I was approached by a friend who asked if I was interested in becoming a recipe developer. Naturally, I said yes. Then I figured I’d better find out what exactly a recipe developer was. What I discovered is a profession, wherein someone was wiling to pay me to be a mad scientist in my own kitchen. Ok, so there’s a little bit more to it than that, but since I was already writing recipes for free several times a month, I figured how hard could it be?

Turns out, it’s not as easy as it seems. But then again, no mad scientist has an easy go of it.  Look at Dr. Frankenstein. Cobbling together his creature, then his creature’s bride was no walk in the park. First he had to find the brain, then those dead body parts, stitch it all together, and wait for a lightning-filled dark stormy night. Not to mention he had to do it all in black & white in a drafty damp castle. Luckily I have it better than Dr. F. My lab is my sunny, technicolor kitchen, Pandora mixes blasting out of the computer, apron and flip-flops instead of lab coat. It’s a pretty sweet setup, though I wouldn’t mind having Igor around to do the washing up. And maybe that steel contraption with the lightning and sparks. That thing is pretty cool.

FullSizeRenderAnyway, back to that recipe developer thing. Know what I get to create in my laboratory? COCKTAILS!! No, seriously — I get paid to develop and taste cocktails. Hey, someone has to do it. Actually, I develop cocktail mixers for one of my clients, a swanky caterer in NYC. The mixers are based upon the signature cocktails he serves at his events. Sure it’s a lot of fun, but it can also be pretty challenging, especially when I’m trying to figure out how to make something that can live in a bottle on a shelf, based upon something made fresh on the spot. However, I’ve discovered a trick in my laboratory that makes the challenge a little easier to overcome.

FullSizeRender - Version 2If the goal is to to get the essence of fresh ingredients into a mix, try creating an infused syrup. There’s really nothing new about this -Cocktail Scientists (bartenders) have known about it for years. Just about any flavor can be added to a simple syrup if you let it hot steep for a while. So at your next party, BBQ or homebound happy hour, make up a few of these and add to your bar. Who knows what tasty creations you’ll bring to life!

FullSizeRenderWhen it comes to cocktails, herbs and spices are particularly well suited to infused syrups. I like to use them when making up mixers because I don’t have to worry about powdered spices dissolving, or herbs looking like bits of lawn in the bottom of the glass. I’ve just given you a few ideas here, but there are countless more out there so I encourage you to experiment, and if you discover a great one, please share!

Equipment needed:

  • Fine mesh strainer
  • Cheese cloth
  • Mason jars

Most of the recipes below make a cup or so of flavored syrup, and can be easily doubled/tripled for a party. I buy a bunch of 8 oz ball jars to have around for my work, and they work great for storing syrups in the fridge too. Syrups keep 1 month refrigerated, if not longer. By the way, most of these are great for flavoring lemonade or ice tea too!

The technique is pretty much the same for all — Mince/Heat/Steep/Strain.

Basic Technique:

  • Mince, grate, crush flavoring.
  • Heat sugar and water until boiling, stir to dissolve sugar.
  • Pour over flavoring ingredient and steep until room temperature.
  • Strain through cheesecloth-lined strainer – when most of the liquid has drained, you can give the cheesecloth a squeeze too.
  • Keep in jar in refrigerator until using.

Herb Syrups:

Use fresh herbs, not dried, and the more finely minced the herb, the stronger the flavor it imparts. These work best for the more tender herbs, like basil, parsley, cilantro, and sorrel, and fresh lavender flowers.

Basic Herb Syrup for Basil, Parsley, Cilantro, Sorrel, Lavender

  • 1 cups sugar
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped herbs

Prepare using basic technique.

Suggested Cocktails:  Basil or cilantro syrup are great in margaritas, lemonade, Tom Collins, or added to ice tea. Lavender is lovely in lemonade (spiked or not) or ice tea. Sorrel has a wonderful lemony flavor, great with vodka and soda, gin or vodka tonic.

Cucumber Syrup

I recently discovered this one, and am just itching to put it with lime and tequila or vodka on the next hot day!

  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 cup grated english cucumber (unpeeled – give a beautiful color)

Add the grated cucumber to a bowl — you want the flesh and any juice so I just grate it in a big bowl.  Bring sugar and water to a boil, stirring to dissolve sugar. Pour over grated cucumber, pushing the cucumber down so it is completely covered. Steep until room temperature. Strain through cheesecloth-lined strainer. Keep refrigerated.

Spice Syrups

When making spice-infused syrups, use crushed whole spices instead of powdered.

Green Cardamom, Cinnamon, Clove, Coriander, Fennel or Allspice Syrup

  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 5 oz crushed pods, berries, sticks, seeds, etc.

Prepare using basic technique.

Turmeric or Ginger Syrup

Turmeric syrup is a GORGEOUS saffron color, and with everyone all into turmeric these days, finding the fresh root in the market is getting pretty easy. This is more for color than flavor, but the syrup does have a subtle earthy flavor that is nice in citrus-based cocktails. Ginger syrup has spice and heat, and is wonderful in margaritas or other citrus-based cocktails, and is wonderful in tea or lemonade too.

  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 5 oz grated peeled root (remove the peels or you will have bitterness)

Prepare using basic technique.

If you like what you read here, please help me spread the word. Meantime, I’d love you to join me on Facebook (please click the ‘like’ button), and check out what else is going on in my kitchen at cookinginmyheels.com. Thanks!  🙂

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