Making simple syrup is ridiculously easy — boil sugar and water — but most cocktail formulas call for only a spoonful. Do I really want to wash a pot just to have a splash of plain liquified sugar?
I do not. But I’ll gladly scrub away stickiness for a more complex sweetener that I’ll use every day. There are three things that can transform simple syrup with minimal added effort: swapping in other sugars; infusing the syrup with aromatic ingredients; and changing the liquid base. Do any or all of those things for a flavorful drink mix to stash in your fridge, one that goes great in iced coffee, tea, mocktails and cocktails.
Most simple syrup formulas call for a 1-to-1 ratio of granulated sugar to water. You can keep the same proportion for all other sweeteners, such as brown and raw sugar, piloncillo, panela, rapadura, jaggery, rock sugar, coconut palm sugar, honey and maple syrup. Heat the mixture over medium heat until the sweetener dissolves completely and the consistency is a little syrupy. For solid sugars, this will require boiling for 1 to 5 minutes. For honey and maple syrup, you can turn off the heat before the liquid bubbles for a thin syrup or simmer it for a few minutes for a thicker one.
Simple syrups work in any drink, but the deeper flavors of the brown and minimally processed sugars taste especially good with dark coffee and dark liquors, such as whiskey, bourbon and rum. Honey syrup is nice with tea and anything floral or herbaceous, including gin, and maple pairs well with warm spices and whiskey-based drinks.
To give simple syrup nuanced layers of flavors, steep it with aromatics. Dense ingredients, such as cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods, peppercorns, dried chiles and fresh ginger slices, can be brought to a boil with the liquid and sweetener, then left in the mix even after it cools and gets jarred for the fridge. All other infusions, like fresh herbs, chiles and citrus zest, should be submerged in the syrup after it has boiled and right before it’s removed from the heat. Cool the syrup completely, then strain through a sieve if using delicate fresh herbs such as basil or mint, pressing on the leaves to extract as much flavor as possible. Chiles, zest and hearty herbs like rosemary and thyme can be stored with the syrup.
Swap out the water and you limit the syrup’s uses but intensify its taste. One of my favorites is stirring 1 part raw sugar into 2 parts freshly brewed hot coffee until it dissolves. I then chill it and use it to sweeten cold brew without diluting it. I do the same with tea — black, green or herbal — mixing 1 part honey, granulated or rock sugar into 1½ parts steaming tea.
Come summer, I rely on lemon syrup for lemonade, iced tea, mocktails and spritzes. Lemon juice takes the place of water and its zest adds another layer of citrus zing. I toss in a fresh chile to give the tangy syrup a kick.
Chile lemon simple syrup
Cutting a slit in a fresh chile without splitting it open infuses this lemony syrup with a little heat. If you want a really spicy syrup, you can split the whole chile in half or slice it.
2 to 3 lemons, preferably unwaxed
½ cup granulated sugar
1 fresh serrano chile, slit
Scrub the lemons well under warm water. Using a vegetable peeler, remove the zest in strips directly over a small saucepan, letting them drop into the pan. Try to not peel off the white pith beneath the yellow layer. Squeeze ½ cup juice from the lemons and add to the zest, along with the sugar.
Bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Remove from the heat and add the chile. Let cool to room temperature.
If you’d like, strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a jar. Otherwise, simply pour the solids and liquid into a jar. Use right away or refrigerate until cold.
Make ahead: The syrup can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 week.
Makes about ⅔ cup.
Sparkling chile lemonade
This bubbly lemonade comes with a kick of heat from the lemon syrup. If you prefer a still lemonade, simply use regular filtered water instead.
¼ cup Chile Lemon Simple Syrup
1 cup sparkling water
1 lemon wedge (optional)
Fill a highball glass with ice. Pour in the syrup, then top off with the sparkling water. Squeeze in the juice from lemon wedge, then drop it in the glass. Stir and enjoy.
Makes 1 drink.
Hard Lemonade: Add 2 ounces vodka, preferably lemon, to the syrup and stir well before topping off with the sparkling water.
Chile lemon margarita
Lemon delivers a margarita that’s as refreshing as a lime-based one but with a more rounded floral taste.
1 lemon wedge
Coarse sea salt
2 ounces Chile Lemon Simple Syrup
1½ ounces tequila
½ ounce orange-flavored liqueur
Run the lemon wedge around the rim or a margarita or lowball glass, then dip into the salt to coat the rim.
Combine the syrup, tequila and liqueur in an ice-filled cocktail shaker. Shake well, then strain into the prepared glass.
Makes 1 drink.