Limoncello di Hillsborough


While the state of California was in the grip of the worst freeze in recent history, and citrus producers up and down the valley were suffering catastrophic losses, I enjoyed a bumper crop. Our friends Donna and Dennis had recently moved into a gorgeous house in Hillsborough, complete with a petite but prolific lemon tree in the back yard. One night, they brought us a paper shopping bag full of them.

Some were ready for use right away; others were still on the hard side and would benefit from a little quiet time in the corner, extending our enjoyment. Over the next couple of months, I made spaghetti al limone, chicken with fennel and lemon, a monster batch of preserved lemons and lord only knows how many vodka tonics. And we still had a mountain of the things left over.

I practically had to make limoncello.

I’ve been meaning to do so for quite some time. I’ve often been inspired to do so by my good friend Anita, a fine ‘cellist in her own right. She’s made not only limoncello but a seriously heady bergamocello, an ethereally perfumed Buddhacello (from a Buddha’s hand citron) and a difficult-to-name bloodorangecello, as well as any number of other interesting concoctions (such as a seriously complex nocino that I am still enjoying precious sips of, sparingly, two years later).

At its most basic definition, limoncello is simply the combination of a lemon-infused neutral liquor mixed with simple syrup. It’s less a recipe than a technique or, as I often think of such things, an equation. Algebra.


To wit: Limoncello is the product of lemon zest and vodka of a given proof, left together for a quantity of time, after which you strain out the zest; to which you then add a simple syrup of sugar and water and let it rest again for a period of time to mellow and blend. How much of each of those variables is what drives your final product.

Now, I’ve made a few infusions in my day, so I was well equipped in that arena. In fact, I’ve made more than one lemon infusion, and have certainly learned a few lessons in the process. Many of the recipes I saw online involved the use of the entire rind. In my experience, the rind imparts far too much bitterness even to be offset by the sweetness of syrup, and knowing that these lemons had, shall we say, an aggressive flavor profile, I opted to use only zest, lovingly shaved into a drift of yellow snow (ew…) by my handy-dandy Microplane. This I jammed directly into a 750 of Ketel One, and into the cupboard it went.

I used seven or eight lemons’ worth of zest for the one bottle of vodka. I wanted intensity of lemony flavor and perfume, and as I was not using the entire rind, I certainly didn’t want to skimp. Practically immediately, the vodka began to take on an almost lurid yellow-green color that would intensify as it sat. My yellow snow, by contrast, beame feathery and pallid, fluttering in its medium like a boozy snowglobe.

As for the time element, varying recipes advised resting times of anywhere from 10 to 40 days for each half of the process. Here, I opted to lean toward the lower end of the scale, for a few reasons. One, my delicately zested rind offered nearly 100% exposure of surface area, meaning extraction would happen faster. Two, I was concerned again about unwanted bitterness. Three, I’m impatient.

The end product was satisfactory, delicious even, though I have a couple of takeaways for next time. I might use a vegetable peeler to get just a thin scrape of rind along with the zest; in the end, I think a slight bitterness might have added a little more dimension. Also, I would use 100-proof vodka. I assumed that the standard 80-proof combined with the sugary solution would be sufficient to prevent freezing. I was wrong. But for posterity, here’s how it went down.

Limoncello di Hillsborough
7-8 medium, thick-skinned Eureka or Lisbon lemons (i.e., not Meyer), preferably from a back yard in Hillsborough
1 750 ml bottle of vodka
4 2 c. sugar
5 2.5 c. water

Using a grater (such as a Microplane), grate all the zest off the lemons, avoiding the rind. Put the zest in a sealable jar and cover with the full bottle of vodka; or, if you prefer, just jam the zest into the bottle of vodka and screw the cap shut. Put in a cool, dark place for at least 10 days.

Strain the infusion first with a sieve and then through a coffee filter. Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan, heat the water and sugar until the sugar is fully dissolved and the solution is clear. Allow to cool fully to room temp. Combine the infusion and the syrup, and set to rest in a cool, dark place again for at least 10 days.

Pour limoncello into attractive mason-top bottles and adorn with quaint labels; this is a very important step. Give a bottle to your lemon supplier.

Edit: In making a second batch, I realized I transcribed the proportions for the syrup incorrectly. Corrected above.

Related: For another perspective on limoncello, including a very intriguing crema di limoncello, check out Ilva’s recipe.

One year ago today … I Was Curious. But evidently not curious enough, cuz I still haven’t gone.

  • You are funny. Yellow snow.
    So, why not Meyer lemon rinds? Too wimpy?
    I do appreciate your observation that you would include a little of the white pith next time. You smart boy.

  • Yup, Meyers are really mild, and while that’s generally a good thing, they just don’t have what it takes to power up this elixir. Though, I suppose you could mix and match a little Meyer in with your Lisbon for a pan-citric kick …

  • I’ve made Meyer limoncello before — you just need more lemon to vodka. In fact, I need to make a batch soon, as our tree is getting overloaded. But in general, for folks who don’t have a tree, regular lemons do seem to work better.
    I also need to strain the microbatch of bergamocello this weekend. Thanks for the reminder!

  • Sean, this is awesome! I’m so inspired to make this now.

  • Algebra! I love it! Have I mentioned lately that I LOVE the way you think?
    John’s sister and BiL made us each a bottle of Limoncello for Christmas in 2005 from backyard lemons.
    Oh. My.
    Haven’t taken the time to try it in my own kitchen yet, but now that you’ve provided inspiration (and the equation)…

  • Yum, yum, triple yum. And so very wonderful, icy cold out of the freezer on a hot day. I’m going to have to try your recipe.

  • “Watch out where the huskies go, don’t you eat that yellow snow…”
    I love the idea of mixing and matching various fruits for a good citruscello. You’ve inspired me! Now let’s see if I actually get off my duff and pick some damn lemons off the tree in the yard :P.

  • erik_flannestad

    Whenever I make liqueurs with 80 proof alcohol, I use a 2-1 sugar syrup to dilute and sweeten. There’s already plenty of water in the vodka.
    There are a few variables; but, if you don’t want it to form ice crystals or freeze, you need to keep the limoncello around 60 proof or 30% alcohol. It is easier to do the math with 100 proof alcohol, since you start with something that is essentially half water and half alcohol.
    Many Italian recipes are designed not for 80 proof vodka; but, for nearly 200 proof grain alcohol.

  • D

    How do you get the sugar to to disolve after it has been poured into the remaining liquid? i poured it in to the the liquid at room temperature.

  • D

    How do you get the sugar to to disolve after it has been poured into the remaining liquid? i poured it in to the the liquid at room temperature.

  • To make simple syrup, dissolve sugar into water in a pan on the stovetop. Heat the water just long enough for the sugar to completely dissolve while stirring, until clear. Then let rest and cool to room temperature before adding to your infusion.

  • Hi! I wrote about (and linked to of course) your limoncello in a big swedish food blog (as well as your home cured olives a while ago). I also borrowed two of the pictures featured in the post. Is that ok with you? Please contact me otherwise at gittogitto/@/hotmail/./com

  • Math is hard

    A couple decades ago, Mattel had the misguided vision to release a talking Barbie doll, one of whose onion-skin-witty quips has apocryphally been forever captured as Math is hard. Let’s go shopping! This Barbie and I, we’re, like, BFFs. I

  • Thanks for this! I’m thinking of making limoncello as a Christmas gift for friends and family. For the sake of time, I’m wondering if I could do the first part, wait 10 days, mix it with the simple syrup, can it, and mail it, with a note that says to wait til X date? Will it come together the same way if it’s canned and sealed?

  • Yes absolutely! In fact, that's what I'm recommending in an upcoming post on Cooking Channel. Fact is, it continues to improve as it sits over a long time, so advise your giftees to use it sparingly. 🙂