Limoncello! That sweet, tart, and refreshing Italian after-dinner digestif can be a wonderful thing. But, typically, when you go for the shop-bought stuff it’s cloyingly sweet, and doesn’t have any of that fresh zip to it. Here’s the good news: It’s simple to make at home and customise it to your own taste, giving you the perfect balance of sweet, sour boozeroo.
What Is Limoncello
Limoncello is an Italian liqueur, traditionally served after meals, or sometimes as a welcome drink. It’s typically served chilled at the very least, and occasionally it may be so cold that it borders on Slurpee consistency (though it has to be a lower-proof version or an extremely cold freezer to make that happen). While it’s typically served straight, it also makes for a killer cocktail ingredient.
Generally speaking, there are only three ingredients in limoncello: sugar, spirit, and lemon. Occasionally you might find one that adds a dash of rosemary or another herb to the mix, and, if that’s your thing, we won’t judge. Some also use grapefruit, orange, pomelo, or other citrus, but then it’s not actually limoncello (you need limone for that). It’s generally clear with maybe a little cloudiness, and yes, it’s super easy to make, you just need a little patience.
The best limoncello I’ve ever had was at Franny’s in Brooklyn. It came after a large meal full of pizza and pasta, and it had that eye-opening, rejuvenating effect. Later, when we went back to Franny’s to get the scoop on which glasses you use for which drinks, I happened to catch a glimpse of the limoncello being made. It utilised a technique I’d never seen before, and luckily, they were happy to share the recipe with us.
How It’s Made
As we said, there are typically only three ingredients: sugar, spirit, and lemon. For the spirit, grain alcohol is generally used, and while I’ve seen recipes that call for a grape-based spirit (like grappa), grain alcohol will typically give you the cleanest lemony flavour. There is a lot of disagreement out there about what proof to use, with many arguing that a high-proof spirit like Everclear is the way to go, because it will extract the flavours most efficiently. That said, in many states, it may be impossible to find anything over 100 proof, and even your typical 80 proof vodka will work; it will just take a little more time.
Most recipes you’ll see go like this: “Peel two pounds [907 grams] of lemons. Use a sharp knife to remove the white pith (to prevent bitterness). Put peel into the vodka. Seal in a glass container and let sit for four weeks. Then you strain out the peel and sweeten with sugar syrup.” Now, there’s nothing wrong with that. America’s Test Kitchen goes that route, and surely it can yield tasty results, but the stuff at Franny’s had an element to it I’ve never tasted before, and it’s achieved by using a different process.
A couple of years ago, the New York Times wrote about a technique used by Italian restaurant Nostrana in Portland, Oregon, where rather than peeling the lemons and immersing said peels in the spirit, the lemons hang in little cheesecloth hammocks, suspended above the spirit. Because alcohol volatilises pretty easily at room temperature (see the sweat on the inside of the glass jar?), essentially what is happening is that the alcohol vapours are macerating the lemon peel. Because it’s doing it from the outside in, you’re just getting the lovely, whole zesty flavours, with none of the bitter pith. This is actually a very old Sicilian technique for making citrus liqueurs.
What Franny’s does is a clever hybrid of the two techniques.
Franny’s Limoncello Recipe
What You’ll Need:
- 1 bottle Skyy Vodka (750ml.)
- 2 lemons, rinsed (ideally organic, Meyer lemons)
- 1.5 cups simple syrup (50/50 water and sugar by weight)
- Zest of two lemons (new, fresh Meyers)
- Pour vodka into a clean glass jar.
- Wrap lemons in cheesecloth and suspend over vodka (using the twine to secure them).
- Seal tightly, and let sit undisturbed (in a cool, dark place) for one month.
- After one month, discard lemons, then add syrup and the fresh zest of two new lemons.
- Let sit for 15 minutes, and strain through a fine mesh sieve (or more cheesecloth).
- Chill and then drink up.
Sounds simple, right? Luckily, it is! I found that this technique gives it the the pure lemony essence that you get from the suspension technique, but it also adds just a but of the satisfying oils, from the quick dunk of the zest. I’ve also found that limoncellos that use the typical technique (soaking the peels for a month) generally have a heavier, less vibrant flavour and aroma, whereas the suspension technique is incredibly light and vibrant. Franny’s technique is, to me, the best of both worlds.
First off, while we aren’t always stickler for this kind of thing, in this case, using organic lemons is very important. Why? Because the alcohol is going to strip out everything that’s in the peel. That means that if your lemons were sprayed with pesticides, it’s going to end up in your limoncello. Nobody wants pesticides in their limoncello.
Another thing to consider is the spirit. I was really surprised to learn that Franny’s uses regular old 80-proof Skyy vodka. Like I said, Franny’s is the best I’ve ever had, so I’m hesitant to mess with success, but I can’t help but wonder what kind of results you might be able to achieve using 100-proof vodka, or even Everclear (which isn’t typically available in New York). I think it’s worth experimenting with—BUT, if you do, keep in mind that you’re going to have to adjust the amount of simple syrup and/or water that you use. If using a higher-proof spirit, I’d say start with the 1.5 cups of simple syrup that Franny’s recommends, then give it a taste. The balance of sweetness and lemon might be right, but the alcohol content will likely be way too high. In that case, don’t add more simple syrup, start adding water, just a little at a time, until you get to the balancing point you’re looking for.
Oh, and a quick note on simple syrup. Most places just use a 1:1 ratio (by weight) of white, granulated sugar and water, then they heat it up and stir it until it’s dissolved. While the 1:1 ratio by weight is solid, personally, I’ve found you get better results and much, much richer flavours if you use raw sugar (the dark, coarse stuff) and don’t heat it at all. Simply combine the sugar and room-temperature water in a glass bowl, and stir it until it’s dissolved. It takes a little longer, but it’s worth it. The syrup is usually a bit sweeter and thicker, so you may not need to use as much of it. Generally, it’s best to add a little less and then taste as you go.
Anyway, you now have all the knowledge you need to utterly blow even your most-jaded Italian grandparent’s mind. We hope to hear stories of cupboards filled with jars of this stuff for the month of March, only to be regaled with success stories come April. Until then, check back next Friday for another boozy-sciencey Happy Hour.
Gigantic thanks to Ms. Jillian LaVinka and to Franny’s in Brooklyn for the recipe!
This post originally ran February 28th, 2014.