No one likes to waste food, least of all me. I have made so many attempts to recycle food scraps into treasure over the years, with varying degrees of success. There is always a balance point between quality and the time spent mastering a new recipe or technique that its often more pratical to just feed the compost worms.
Extracts, tinctures & Infusions, however, are the exception.
If you have time to zest a lemon or put herbs in a jar, then you are on your way to making natural flavorings for a fraciton of the cost of the immitation stuff. Throughout the growing season, I'll be posting a variety of ideas for stocking your kitchen when herbs, fruits and spices are fresh and plentiful so that you can enjoy the tastes year round. Most even make great gourmet gifts, so let's get started.
As I write this article, my garden is just begining to sprout on the windowsill. The visions of harvesting fresh produce and herbs are still months away, but why wait when I have a drawer full of lemons. After producing the Hot Toddy tutorial, I also had plenty of peels. Time to break out some canning jars.
To prepare your peels, simply seperate the outer zest from the white pith (which would make your extract bitter if used). I find it easiest to remove the peel while the lemon is still whole, and then juice it afterwards for whatever use I had intended. If I am making an extract or tincture for my own use, I will typically use a microplane. If making a batch as a gift, then I use a channel knife so that the peels provide a nice presentation.
Here is as good a time as any to state the difference between extracts, tinctures and infusions (at least as far as it applies to our series):
-An infusion is literally the addition of one element to another. For our use, an infusion will be the weakest form of flavoring, and most often found as a mixer for drinks.
-An extract is a very concentrated infusion, typically consisting of equal parts of all ingredients. These are most commonly used in small quantities but to great effect.
-A tincture lies between extracts and infusions, typically at about a 1:4 part ratio (though some recipes can be as little as a 1:8 ratio and still be a tincture)
Our lemon peels can be turned into all three depending how much of our next prime ingredient is added: alcohol.
No, this is not the Itsy Garden Pub, alcohol is just a better solvent for extracting most flavors. If you obstain from all sources of alcohol, however, you can purchase food grade vegetable glycerin to use instead. If you would like to read more about extract solvents, check out this great article.
Just don't be tempted to add any water or your mixture will go from clear to this:
It was still usable, but it's not going to win any awards for prettiest extract in the cupboard.
For my extracts, I tend to use Everclear as it is the highest proof, non-flavored, ingestable solvent that can be purchased. Everclear is not legal for sale everywhere, so if you live in a location that does not allow it, just go for the highest proof vodka you can find. Quality does matter with your vodka, so if the bottle you purchase has any off flavors, I would suggest purifying it through a Brita pitcher until it tastes clean. To prove that vodka works just fine, here is the video and resulting tincture --
Now it's just a matter of what you want to use your lemon essence for. In the video, I am making a simple tincture since I like to add the lemon flavor to certain meats and veggies. Lemon peels impart a lot of flavor into your solvent, so a weaker solution goes a long way. For baking, however, I like have a small jar of 1:1 extract on hand so as not to dilute batters or icings with too much liquid. You can also just keep a single jar of alcohol and add lemon peels as you get them. The mixture will just grow stronger over time until it's perfect for your needs. If it becomes too strong, just thin it out with more alcohol. If using zest and the tiny pieces become a bother, just strain it out after a minimum of 2 weeks.
So we covered uses for lemon tincture in cooking, and lemon extract in baking, but what about a lemon infusion? Well how about homemade Lemoncello! While most think about making batches as gifts for the holidays, Lemoncello is a star during the summer too. While cocktails and Sangria come immediatly to mind, it also pairs incredbily well with bing cherries. In fact, I'll be making some cherry preserves this summer that feature it. The only catch is that it traditionally takes 80 days from start to finish, so don't wait.
Simply determine how much Lemoncello you might use and prepare some glass containers (mason jars work great!). For each liter of vodka, you will eventually be adding 4 cups of water & ~3 cups of sugar (depending on sweetness preference), so double up as nessesary. To get started, put your vodka in some mason jars and add a bunch of peels. A general ratio is: the peels of 10 lemons per 1 liter of vodka. You don't need to use up 10 lemons in one shot though, feel free to add peels as you generate them. Once you hit 10 sets of peels, you can start your official infusion count down, or not, those peels can really just sit there until you're ready. If you're in a hurry though, filter out the peels and add simple syrup after 40 days of infusion, then bottle and set aside for at least another 40 days to mellow. (I'll have a video up of the full process once my own Lemoncello has finished infusing, but at least you can get started now.)
And there you have it. Delicious flavor saved from the landfill. Set a jar of Everclear or Vodka in your cabinet and just keep adding your peels for a never-ending supply of perfect lemon flavor with no effort at all.
Have you made your own batch of lemon extract, tincture or infusion? Share what you use if for in the comments below.