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There’s lots of flavor locked inside the citrus peel, which is why the pros marry the peels with sugar until the fragrant essential oils emerge in a syrupy puddle.
- 8 clementines or 4 oranges
Remove zest from lemons and clementines in wide strips with a vegetable peeler, leaving white pith behind. Toss with sugar in a medium bowl, cover, and let sit at least 3 hours and up to 1 day (flavor will intensify with time).
Strain into an airtight container, pressing on solids to extract as much oil as possible; discard zest. Cover oil and chill.
Do Ahead: Oil can be made 1 week ahead. Keep chilled.
Up the Citrus in Your Cocktails with Oleo Saccharum
Citrus peels are flavor powerhouses, as anyone who’s grated orange zest into a cake batter—or garnished a martini with a big lemon twist—can attest. So what’s the easiest way to extract those essential citrus oils and put them to use in your cocktails? A special syrup that’s a key element of traditional punches, and a total cocktail workhorse, known as oleo saccharum.
The name translates to oil sugar, which doubles as a definition. Combine dry citrus peels with sugar and, over the course of a few hours, you’ll see the citrus oils seeping out—giving you a concentrated syrup that tastes intensely of the fruit you’re using, without the pith’s bitterness or juice’s dilution. And since the syrup is full of citrus oil, it lends cocktails a bit of weight and body, a substantial feeling that you can’t get with juice or plain sugar syrup alone.
As a syrup that contributes citrus flavor, sweetness, and texture at once, oleo saccharum is one of the best cocktail multi-taskers out there. That’s what endears it to modern-day bartenders, but it’s hardly a recent cocktail invention.
Historically, the syrup was a mandatory component of classic punch. As Jerry Thomas wrote in The Bon Vivant’s Companion, first published in 1862, “To make punch of any sort in perfection, the ambrosial essence of the lemon must be extracted, by rubbing lumps of sugar on the rind” (a process that has evolved over the years). Cocktail scholar Dave Wondrich has traced oleo saccharum back to 1707 and perhaps before, and in his definitive book Punch, states that “lemon oil adds a fragrance and a depth that marks the difference between a good Punch and a great one.”
Since it’s the sugar that draws out those oils we’re after, an oleo saccharum is quite sweet, and so it shouldn’t be added to cocktails that already have sweeteners. Rather, swap it in for simple syrup any time you want to jack up the citrus flavor, whether or not you’re already using juice. Punch or sangria? Clearly. A French 75 with lemon oleo saccharum in place of simple syrup? Delicious. Or try it with grapefruit oleo, for a complementary citrus flavor as an elusive background note.
It can equally add complexity to non-alcoholic drinks. Lemonade with both juice and oleo saccharum? Highly recommended. Right now, we’re keeping a blood orange oleo in the fridge. Squeeze a little juice in the morning, stir with oleo saccharum, and top with lots of sparkling water for a fresh orange soda. It’s one of the easiest and most refreshing booze-free drinks we know.
Even if oleo saccharum may sound a bit esoteric, it’s dead simple to make: Combine sugar and citrus peel, and you’ve already done all the hard work. And when you store your finished oleo in the fridge, it’ll keep for a month or more, on-hand any time you need a sweet citrus lift.
Zest your citrus with a straight vegetable peeler (a knife will also do), taking the skin in long, thin strips—avoiding the bitter white pith as much as possible. Place it in a large bowl or Ziploc, then add the sugar. Toss the citrus and sugar together (whether with a big spoon or by shaking and massaging it, if you’re using a Ziploc bag) until every peel is thoroughly coated in sugar.
Now set it aside, covered if you’re using a bowl, and wait for the fun part. Within a few hours or even less, you’ll see this mixture seem to liquify—the citrus oils emerging and dissolving into the sugar, creating a syrup from two dry ingredients. (This will happen with larger fruits, like oranges and grapefruits, more quickly than with lemons or limes.) Once most of the oils have been extracted, add a bit of hot water to dissolve any remaining sugar, strain out the now-depleted peels, and you’re done.
Try it in This
The Old Fashioned (in its classic form, a stirred whiskey cocktail with sugar, bitters, and a twist) is a drink whose garnish is critical, relying on the subtle lift of orange oils to balance the strong spirit. But what if you want to up the orange? A proper Old Fashioned would become diluted and unappealing with juice, or with muddled fruit (if you see a bartender muddling up an orange slice and maraschino cherry for your drink, you have our permission to walk away). But using an oleo saccharum as the sweetener brings in even more of those orange oils, for a drink where the citrus flavors are bright and powerful, without any juice to compromise the drink’s strength and clarity.
Jeffrey Morgenthaler Bartending and Cocktail Advice Since 2004
I’ve said this before: I’m a lazy guy, and yet I’m a perfectionist. I want my cocktails perfectly-prepared, but I’d really rather not work too hard. With that in mind, I present my latest in perfectly-prepared cocktail ingredients for slackers like you.
A couple of years ago, like so many other bartenders around the world, I implemented a daily punch program at my bar. It’s been well received by our guests, who enjoy exploring a different, interesting and inexpensive tipple every night. And my staff loves it, because it’s a drink that can be poured and handed over to the guest in absolutely no time at all, but provides a daily conversation piece to interact with the folks across the bar.
One of the key components to a classic punch, as we learned from our friend David Wondrich in his book Punch, is a proper oleo saccharum. The process involves peeling citrus (usually lemon) and gently muddling it into superfine sugar, letting it rest for an hour or more. I always recommend stirring the mixture occasionally until the sugar essentially melts from the citrus oil as it leeches from the peels. What you’re left with is a sweet, aromatic base for a tasty bowl of punch.
The problem? Well, the biggest drawback has been having to haul myself in to the bar every morning for the past two years and preparing the oleo saccharum, then mixing the punch and chilling it before the evening’s service. I’d prefer to hand over the duty to my daytime prep bartender, but tending to an oleo saccharum every day would have been one additional duty that he just didn’t need. In Wondrich’s own words, “This process is admittedly time-consuming and to some degree a laborious one.”
If only there were a quicker way to prepare oleo saccharum, a method that didn’t require any stirring or tending, a method that could be prepared ahead of time without fear of spoilage or evaporation, so that a delicious punch could be prepared quickly by anyone with a recipe.
Here’s our solution: superfine sugar and lemon peels are immediately placed into a vacuum seal bag and sealed. Over the course of four to six hours, the lemon oils in the airtight environment leech out and perfectly dissolve the entire mass of sugar, without any need for a watchful eye or constant agitation. Once the process is complete, the bags are dated and refrigerated, and ready for use. We prepare a week’s worth at a time, and the last bag is every bit as fresh as the first. We use the inexpensive FoodSaver vaccum sealer ($50 on Amazon), and quart-sized bags ($20 for 44) at our bar.
And, if you’re really into this kind of stuff, and I don’t know why you wouldn’t be, here’s a video of me saying pretty much exactly what you just read, but with a bunch of swearing and bleeps and stuff:
One of our favorite punches from David’s book is the classic Philadelphia Fish House Punch, updated with his kludges, and re-updated here using the vacuum seal oleo saccharum technique.
As the rind is so much a part of this recipe, it’s important to use organic, unwaxed citrus. Now when you peel try as best you can to minimise the pith and a good Swiss-made peeler should help with that.
- Make sure you wash your citrus before starting.
- Peel the citrus, trying to get as little pith as possible
- The basic rule of thumb is that you want to do about 2oz of Sugar per fruit, now Grapefruit is a little bigger than Lemons, Limes or Oranges but its also a little drier, so its a safe bet that the rule probably still holds true.
- Place everything in a large jar and shake. Leave overnight (shaking whenever possible)
- To lengthen the Oleo Saccharum and dissolve any remaining sugar, add the same volume of juice as you do sugar (back in step 4)
- Reseal the jar and shake until sugar is dissolved.
Alternatively … If you have a vacuum sealer, then use the Jeffrey Morgenthaler technique
- Muddle Citrus peels with Caster Sugar in a bowl
- Pour muddled peels and sugar into a vacuum bag, remove air from the bag and seal.
- Leave it to infuse for at least 6 hours at room temperature (preferably 12 hours if possible) for the sugar to leech out and absorb the citrus oils.
- Date and refrigerate the sealed bag until required (within a week).
The peels will get a little bit stiff and brittle, they physically lose density and volume as they are releasing their oil
You can drink it with soda, which will make a wonderful Grapefruit Soda or add it to a drink like a Paloma.
How to Make and Mix With Oleo SaccharumOleo Saccharum Recipe. | Photo by Lara Ferroni. The Ballerina. | Photo by John Valls. Blue Daydream. | Photo by Emily Farris. Classic Hot Toddy. | Photo by John Valls. Ernesto's Cobbler. | Photo by Rachel Vanni. Kentucky Bird. | Photo by Stephen Kurpinsky.
Oleo saccharum, that sticky sweet mixture of sugar and citrus peels, is a great way to add extra dimensions of flavor to cocktails while extending the life of your citrus. Jeffrey Morganthaler&rsquos recipe is our go-to, but if you don&rsquot have a vacuum sealer, a plastic baggie also gets the job done, just be sure to flatten the bag on your countertop and smooth it out to remove air from the mixture before you seal it.
One nice thing about Morgenthaler&rsquos recipe is that it works well with any type of citrus. You can even add dried (or fresh) herbs, tea leaves, or spices to the mix. One you&rsquove made a batch, here are a few simple ways to mix with it. You can even just use it to sweeten up seltzer or to add a pop of citrusy sweetness to hot tea.
The Ballerina Grapefruit and rosemary pair perfectly with dry rosé and sweet vermouth.
Blue Daydream Brunch gets the blue curaçao treatment at The Oliver in Kansas City.
Classic Hot Toddy Jim Meehan&rsquos version of the ultimate cold-weather cocktail.
Ernesto&rsquos Sherry Cobbler A symphony of citrus brings this sherry cobbler to life.
Extra-Orange Old Fashioned
The Old Fashioned (in its classic form, a stirred whiskey cocktail with sugar, bitters, and a twist) is a drink whose garnish is critical, relying on the subtle lift of orange oils to balance the strong spirit. But what if you want to up the orange? A proper Old Fashioned would become diluted and unappealing with juice, or with muddled fruit (if you see a bartender muddling up an orange slice and maraschino cherry for your drink, you have our permission to walk away). But using an oleo saccharum as the sweetener brings in even more of those orange oils, for a drink where the citrus flavors are bright and powerful, without any juice to compromise the drink’s strength and clarity.Extra Orange Old Fashioned
What is Oleo Saccharum?
At a glance, the name seems intimidating but it actually means “oil sugar” in Latin. It was a very prominent ingredient in bartending in the 1800s mainly used to add flavor and aroma to alcoholic beverages and punches.
It is a well-known fact that citrus peels contain essential oils that are responsible for the delightful fruity aroma. Nowadays, bartenders usually just spritz the peels to release a little bit of oil and wipe it onto the glass’s rim. The process of making oleo saccharum is perhaps the best way to extract most of the oils and at the same time, add some sweetness to it thanks to the sugar’s hygroscopic properties.
Some describe it as “magic oil” for its deep and pure citrus tones that add a lot of complimentary notes to a drink. It is also versatile since it can be used for other treats and drinks such as ice cream, iced tea, and lemonade, so bringing it back to the modern world means endless possibilities for bartenders and alcohol enthusiasts alike.
Wash and peel citruses. Add sugar and stir to incorporate. Let sit at room temperature for 4 hours, then drain through a fine mesh strainer. Squeeze or press on the citrus peels to extract any remaining syrup. Store in refrigeration for up to a month add to your favorite beverages at will.
If you order an espresso at The Crown, it comes served with a sparkling water back. But these are no ordinary bubbles — our water backs are presented with a small shot of oleo saccharum, giving it a hit of sweet pungent citrus. That sweet kick not only cleanses the palate but may change your perception of the next sip of espresso.
Making oleo saccharum is easy. In fact, the most complicated part is probably figuring out how to use up the discarded citrus fruits. Consider it an opportunity to make lemonade, orange juice, or shrub!
Rinse the citrus thoroughly before starting. I like to submerge them in a lot of water with a tablespoon or two of apple cider vinegar to clear any critters and remove any residue. After drying them, get to work peeling. In this case, you want only the zest of the fruit, leaving the bitter white pith behind. The size and shape of the zest doesn’t matter too much, but long strips make for quicker work.
Collect your citrus zest in a container and cover with sugar. Refined white sugar works best for this — coarse sugar granules won’t melt properly. The citrus should be thoroughly covered in sugar, but not totally packed in. For reference, we usually add about half the volume of the citrus zest in sugar
Toss the sugar and citrus skin together and let sit at room temperature for at least four hours before draining. At The Crown, we often leave this mixture in the fridge for a couple days before pulling it out and letting it come to room temp.
There should be some syrup collecting in the bottom of your container. The sugar has pulled the essential oils out of the citrus zest, infusing the sugar with its aroma and flavor. If the syrup is too thick, or there are still some granules of sugar that haven’t dissolved, toss a couple tablespoons of warm water in to loosen everything up. Pour the contents through a fine mesh strainer, making sure to squeeze or mash the peels to extract any leftover syrup.
It might seem like a small yield for the amount of citrus zest used, but this lemon oil packs a punch! At the Crown we only use about a ¼ tbsp for each water back, so one batch lasts us a week or two at least. Add to your favorite cocktail, give your juice an extra punch, or just put it in sparkling water to spruce up your bubbles!
Oleo-saccharum is Latin for ‘oil-sugar’ and is the name given to the syrup made by using sugar’s hygroscopic property to extract the fragrant natural oils in citrus fruit peels – most commonly lemons.
Oleo-saccharum is to a punch what a stock is to soup. Indeed, as Jerry Thomas wrote in his 1862 The Bartenders Guide "to make punch of any sort in perfection, the ambrosial essence of the lemon must be extracted."
Oleo has been used in punch-making since at least the first recorded mention in 1670 and the first known book on mixed drinks written in English, the 1827 Oxford Night Caps by Richard Cook, details how to "extract the juice from the rind of three lemons, by rubbing loaf sugar on them."
Oxford Night Caps published 1827
Jerry Thomas also instructs "by rubbing lumps of sugar on the rind, which breaks the delicate little vessels that contain the essence, and at the same time absorbs it." However, this doesn't work with modern sugar as it's not strong enough. As Wondrich found, "I've tried it with every kind of modern sugarloaf, cube and crystal I could procure and only ended up with a mass of crumbled, faintly scented sugar and a lemon undimmed in its yellowness. In this, our ancestors had the advantage on us."
Despite this, sugar is still used to extract citrus oils from their skin to make oleo-saccharum.
How to make oleo-saccharum
1. Buy preferably organic UNWAXED lemons (or other citrus fruit). Lemon works best in oleo-saccharum but oranges, especially blood oranges, also work well and are often combined with lemon.
2. Wash your citrus fruit.
3. Peel unwaxed lemons (or oranges, grapefruit etc) with as little of the white pith as possible on the peels and place in a Mason/Kilner jar. (If using 4 lemons then a 1 pint jar is plenty large enough.)
4. Measure 45ml / 1½oz of caster sugar per lemon used and pour into Mason/Kilner jar to cover lemon peels.
(peel of 4 x lemons = 180 ml / 6oz /small espresso cup of caster sugar)
5. Seal jar, shake and leave overnight. Occasional stirring helps.
6. The clear citrus oil syrup found floating on top of the sugar in your jar the next day is pure oleo-saccharum and it tastes divine. However, as you'll see there is precious little of it, and undissolved sugar remains. So, dissolve the remaining sugar and lengthen your oleo-saccharum by making an oleo-saccharum shrub (non-vinegar shrub or sherbet) as follows.
7. Add the same volume of lemon juice (or other citrus used) as you did caster sugar (in step 4) to the oleo-saccharum in your Mason/Kilner jar.
(peel of 4 x lemons = 180 ml / 6oz / small espresso cup of lemon juice)
8. Reseal jar and shake until sugar has dissolved. Now you have an oleo-saccharum shrub. If making a punch, pour this into your punch bowl, peels and all. Or refrigerate until required and store for up to four days.
If you have a vacuum sealer than we'd recommend the Jeffrey Morgenthaler's technique for making oleo-saccharum:
1. Muddle citrus peels with caster sugar in bowl.
2. Pour muddled peels and sugar into vacuum bag, remove air from bag and seal.
3. Leave to infuse for at least 6 hours at room temperature (preferably 12 hours) for the sugar to leach out and absorb the lemon oils.
4. Then date and refrigerate the sealed bag until required (within a week).
Tips & further info
Whichever of the two above methods you use, avoid the white pith when zesting citrus fruit and consider using a microplane zester rather than a peeler - the finer zest presents a larger surface area for the sugar to leach oils from although the oleo produced will require fine straining.