Everything in the world is awful. Maybe not the entire world, but a lot of it. So, I offer my love and joy and talents to you here as a tiny gift of good to the universe while we’re sorting out the rest. A lot I can’t make progress on now, but I can help you with your drink game while we wait (especially if, as I am, you find yourself looking more and more to that bottle each day.*
I don’t think a cocktail is a cocktail without citrus. You can debate back and forth all you like about what is and isn’t a cocktail, but I adore the zesty, spicy, tangy, unimaginably delectable flavors. And the essential oils? Don’t get me started. In another life, figuring out the how limonene and linalool are so bewitching would have been my PhD thesis.
As the rules of “the perfect drink” go, you also should have a hint of sweet. Enter the beguiling Oleo Saccharum.
The name offers its explanation. Oleo for oil and saccharum for saccharine for sugar. With this bartender’s friend you utilize my favorite thing, chemistry!, to make up the perfect drink ingredient.
With the rise of craft cocktail culture, we’ve seen the rise of vintage ingredients. Sure, oleo saccharum sounds like a kickass hipster name for an ingredient, but I’m not sure anyone appreciates quite how clever this syrup is.
Oil and water don’t mix, right? Those are basic scientific facts. Working all of the complex oils from a citrus peel into a water based simple syrup will then be difficult using the standard flavored simple syrup formula. If you need this formula, it’s pretty simple. (haha! look at me.) One part sugar to one part water, boil until sugar is completely dissolved and mixed. Allow syrup to cool from boiling before throwing in your flavor ingredient (think mint, raspberries, blackberries, lavender). Allow to sit for an hour or so, then strain and serve.
Sugar water is slightly friendlier than regular water to oil, but still, it’s not great. In the case of citrus, we modify this process to allow for maximum chemical efficiency. Sugar is hygroscopic. Hydrgawhosawhatsit? Hygroscopy is the ability of a substance to absorb water and wet things. Materials that are hygroscopic readily absorb all moisture available to including oil. Sugar boasts this magical property, readily absorbing oils such as those from citrus fruits. Once we’ve entrapped the citrus oils with the sugar molecules, creating a citrus simple syrup becomes chemically easier, not to mention yields more robust results. Try to make a lemon simple syrup by the first method I mention, then compare it to the oleo saccharum method and you’ll see what I mean.
But wait, mint and lavender rely on oils too? Why can’t we do them the oleo saccharum way? You’re not wrong. Major components from mint and lavender scents are from oils, but many also come from water soluble molecules. While a fresh citrus peel oozes oil, herbs, at best waft, it having comparatively no volume. It’s best to stick to the traditional simple syrup method unless you’ve got a lot of liquid on your hands.
So then, what’s this magic recipe? Since it became my obsession I’ve made nearly every kind of oleo you can think of -lemon, lime, orange, grapefruit, clementine –using a variety of recipes I’ve found online. Like from Bon Appetit and Liquor.com. After playing around, I’ll offer my best, chemist perspective process.
Step 1: Peel your citrus. Today I’ve done two types of grapefruit to experiment with Ruby Red vs. Yellow grapefruit flavors. Try to avoid peeling off the pith (the white stuff on the interior of the peel) to avoid bitter flavors.
Step 2: Mash your citrus. You want to get as much of the oil flowing as you can to migrate into the sugar.
Step 3: Two words –surface area. You want to maximize the area of citrus exposed to the sugar without using too much sugar thereby diluting the oils. To do this, layer. Place a layer of citrus peel on the bottom of your bowl.
Step 4: Sprinkle sugar on top ensuring the peels are lightly covered. Again, you’re maximizing the area of sugar touching peel to suck out the most oil. Overdo the sugar, and you’ll lose the best effect. But wait Elise! This isn’t a good recipe. You didn’t tell me how many cups or tablespoons to use! Yes I did. Use enough but not too much. Layer rinse and repeat.
Step 5: Let it soak. The minimum about of time you should give them is four hours. Bare minimum. I often let mine sit out for about a day to give it plenty of time. Then they look something like this.
Step 6: Pick out the peels. Here, I deviate from the sites. At the end of the recipe they’ll tell you to push away all the peels, let the oils concentrate and use them as you will. The first time I tried this method, I found nothing resembling “oil” in my bowls so much as oily, sugary clumps. Maybe if I had more patience to wait and separate, I would have found more oil over time. But I’m not patient. I took those sugar oil clumps and used them to make a simple syrup with out of this world citrus flavor. Like I said, the sugar molecules have locked in the oil and make it much easier to work into the water to form the simple syrup. So, I do it that way. It gives you more volume for your product and is, presumably, easier also to work into your drinks than the mess you would get otherwise. Again, I don’t know how to use sugary clumpy messes in a drink, so I take out the peels and make a simple syrup. Estimate the amount of sugar you have, add an equal volume of water and boil.
And voila! You have delightful, delicious citrusy oleo saccharum -manna from the heaven. Oh and don't forget to use your leftover juice with your fun new syrups.