When I left you, you should have chosen your spirit and flavor profile. Now we can get down to the nitty gritty and talk about how to choose ingredients and how to know how much to use.
Fruits & Veggies : Fresh fruit is relatively easy. Just like when you’re using fruit for anything else, you should always make sure the it is perfectly ripe, or as close as possible. Under-ripe fruit will not give up its flavor as readily, and the flavor you do get will be dull rather than bright. Overly ripe fruit will give up a flavor that will come across as borderline rotten – earthy and dirt like, rather than sweet and fresh. Buy it the day you intend on using it. Don’t buy it Wednesday, planning to make your infusion on Saturday. The very earliest purchase should be the night before. Any earlier and the fruit will lose its freshness.
Amount to be used depends on whether you want the fruit to be the star attraction, or if you would like the spirits to be just subtly tinged with the flavor. For my pineapple-chile tequila, since I am using a spirit that has been unaged the flavor is pretty clean and the pineapple will shine through fairly strongly. For a 1.75 L bottle, I am using a whole, smallish pineapple, which has been peeled, cored, and cubed. Since I want it to give up as much flavor as possible, the cubes are fairly small, an inch or smaller. If you are using a fruit that is less juicy than your average pineapple (think apples and pears), you want a smaller dice. For berries, since most have a skin and won’t give up juice until they’re macerated, squish them before adding your alcohol. For soft berries, throw them in a bowl with a tablespoon or two of sugar and a squeeze of lemon juice and let it sit for 10 or 15 minutes, give it a nice smush, then add it to your jar. When using citrus, using peels only is just fine, but if you would also like to use the flesh, remove the zest, then pare the citrus down, removing as much of the bitter pith as possible.
Ultimately you want to shoot for about 2 cups of fruit or veggies. Place the fruit in the jar and pour the spirit over it. Seal the jar and give it a good shake. Unless you are using a very acidic fruit you should keep it in the fridge. Let it infuse for 2 weeks, checking it every day and giving it a good shake each time.
Ginger, Jalapenos, and other Chiles : If you are using something spicy – jalapenos, ginger – use far less of it. Taste the chile and see how spicy it is. Use that as your gauge. Also, the heat of the chile is carried in its white ribs and seeds. When I use chiles in pickling, I use 1 whole chile per two cups of liquid. I don’t do anything to it except cut a small slit down the side. The heat comes through without being overpowering.
When using ginger, it should be peeled as best as possible and cut into 1 inch or smaller cubes. In the past I have used a 2 inch piece of ginger for a 1.75 L bottle. The flavor was not overwhelmingly ginger-y, so if you’re going for a Domaine de Canton type flavor, you want to end up with about 1 cup.
Spices : Again, freshness is key. Fresh spices should not be hay-colored and should have a very strong scent. Always use the spice of choice in its intact version. This will allow your infusion to retain its clarity. The only exception is nutmeg. I have never infused with a whole nutmeg. The flavor is so strong that a pinch will do without sacrificing clarity. Some popular dried things to put in spirits are cinnamon sticks, dried chiles, allspice, juniper berries, and cardamom.
For smaller spices, shoot for about a tablespoon or so. Cardamom pods are somewhere in between but 7-10 pods ought to do the trick.
Larger spices call for a lesser amount. For 1.75 L of spirits, 2-3 cinnamon sticks or dried chiles will suffice. The flavor will come across without being overpowering.
I used 3 dried chiles in my pineapple tequila – 2 went in with the pineapple in the jar, and 1 in the final bottle, mostly for decoration. It has a fresh, sweet start with a slight heat at the back.
Again, letting it infuse for 2 weeks, giving the jar a good shake every now and then.
Tea & Fresh Herbs : Do I even need to say it? Use the freshest possible. You will want about 5 tablespoons total. If using fresh herbs, you may want to bruise them slightly. Using a spice bag, tea bag, or other style of ‘infuser’ is best, especially if you are infusing with other ingredients, though I have infused with tea and herbs first, removed, then added fruit and veggies. The method is up to you and I haven’t noticed a difference. Allow your tea and herbs to steep for 8-12 hours. Do not leave longer than 12 hours – herbs will start to brown and tea flavors will start to become bitter.
Nuts : I have never used nuts before, but have seen recipes around. I would recommend toasting them first, to make them release their delicious, nutty oils, and perhaps seasoning them, if you like. Allow them to cool before adding the liquor. Steeping time seems to be about a week or two, depending on the recipe.
I think that covers every type of infusion ingredient. If you can think of something I haven’t covered, leave a comment and I will address it promptly. If you are looking some ideas, a good source is Post Prohibition. They also have some nifty bitters recipes and some good flavored simple syrups and grenadines I’d like to try out.
Next post: Sweetening the Deal – adding sugar to your infusion.