How to get the most out of seasonal ingredients, all year round
If you open your kitchen cupboard, it's likely that you will see most traditional types of preservation techniques staring back at you - that jar of jam or bottle of syrup (sugar), pickled vegetables (acid), dried fruits and noodles (desiccation) and as you're in this industry, maybe an alcoholic infusion as well.
These techniques all prevent bacterial growth by excluding life's essentials - water and oxygen, or by changing the acidity to a level that microbes cannot tolerate, and allow us to extend the lifespan of seasonal fruits and vegetables, as well as retain nutrients and delicate flavours. As bartenders, we use all these methods to create ingredients for our drinks, but sometimes overlook the possibilities that they offer.
These days most of the preservation work is done for us. We can buy a huge selection of liqueurs and syrups, dried fruits, long-life juices and pre-flavoured vodkas, but there is a lot to be said for going back to the kitchen and doing it ourselves. Here are a few hints for making your own store cupboard of ingredients:
Syrups, liqueurs and jams
Some fruits, herbs and spices will need to be simmered with sugar for a while for the flavour to be extracted (harder fruits like apple and pear, plus dried spices such as nutmeg), while others may just need to be covered in hot water and pressed to release the juices and preserve their flavour (lemongrass and berries). Once cooled, strain, refrigerate and use within a few days. Adding a spirit to make a liqueur will extend the lifespan although it is best to still keep refrigerated. Alternatively, use a lot more sugar to make a jam, which is ideal for Breakfast Martinis and adding flavour without extra dilution.
Simply add vinegar to the syrups above (balsamic vinegar with strawberry syrup or cider vinegar with apple and nutmeg for example). Alternatively, add sugar directly to the fruit to draw out the juice and then add vinegar. The second method doesn’t require heating and will produce a more intense and ‘fresher’ flavour. These will keep longer, but watch the balance when making a cocktail - you already have sweetness and acidity with a shrub.
Fresh, sweet flavours are the first to be extracted, so it may only take minutes for light teas, berries and flowers. The longer the infusion, the more tannins are drawn out, which can add ‘body’ and bitterness to a drink - taste a two-day old fresh fig infusion versus a month-old one for example. These can be cocktails of ingredients in themselves - try pear, cinnamon and vanilla or lemongrass, ginger and lime peel for example (though remember that these might need different infusion times and should be added or removed from the mix as appropriate).
By dehydrating fresh seasonal ingredients, you have garnishes that can be used all year round. Cut fruits thin and leave on a rack to dry, or use an oven on low heat or a dehydrator in more humid environments. Try thin slivers of strawberry, citrus or ginger, dried pomegranate seeds or even powdered dry orange peel for interesting additions to your drinks.
So when should I make what?
Simply speaking, syrups add sweetness, liqueurs add sweetness and strength, shrubs sourness and infusions strength, so it depends on the flavours you're trying to balance and the amount of dilution you want in your drink.
If you already have a cocktail containing liqueurs, shrubs might be a good way of adding another level of depth. If you want to make a shorter, stronger drink, or don't have much refrigerator space, infusions are useful. There are many other things to consider though, as using acids, water and alcohol will extract different flavour compounds and give you altogether different results to work with.
Paul Mathew is a British bartender, drinks consultant and associate editor of DRiNK Magazine in Asia. He is based in Beijing, owns a bar in London, and regularly travels in-between looking at bartending styles and trends