DPaul and I have been doing vodka infusions for several years now. Over the years, we’ve experimented with a wide variety of ingredients and methods, with varying degrees of success. But of all the infusions we’ve done, the consistent winner has been cucumber. This came as much a surprise to us as anyone, figuring that more obvious flavors like citrus, berries or vanilla (being, as they are, commercially available) would be the standouts. Mais non.
Once you’ve infused your own vodka, you’ll think twice about buying flavored vodka. The flavors and aromas you get from a handmade product are far more genuine and nuanced than commercially produced brews. In the case of cucumber, you definitely get a big, fresh explosion of cucumber flavor, but moreover you get discrete notes individually distilled — floral, melony, grassy — that harmonize like a perfectly struck chord. But best of all, if your balance is exactly right, the frozen vodka forms gorgeous sheets of ice crystals that crash on the tongue when you drink it. It’s an incredible experience.
There is no precise recipe, just a few rules of thumb: For fresher ingredients, like fruits or herbs, you need a higher ratio of infusable to vodka, and a shorter steeping time. For drier ingredients, like spices, it’s a lower ratio of infusable to vodka and a longer time to steep.
A few notes from past infusions:
- If you’re going to do lemon or any other citrus, only use the zest and maybe some pulp; the pith is extremely bitter, and will overpower the flavor of the vodka.
- Vanilla, cinnamon and other dry spices work extremely well and can be left in to steep for quite a while. We once left a cinnamon stick in so long that a slick of red oil ultimately rose to the top of the infusion.
- By contrast, fresh ingredients require a lighter hand. Sometimes if you go too long, you’ll surpass the sublime flavor of the ingredient and begin drawing bitter and off flavors.
- Star anise creates a lovely golden-hued infusion with a potent licorice flavor. And when you pour it over ice, it turns opaque white instantly. Neat!
- Fruits must be fully ripe, or you will only get tartness and bitterness. Adding sugar to the end product only results in syrupy texture.
For this attempt at cucumber, I used two standard cucumbers, peeled and seeded. If you are using garden-fresh, organic cucumbers, feel free to leave the peel intact. It will give your product a charming green tint and a stronger grassy note. But the ones I got looked a bit waxy, so off they go. Don’t worry too much if you don’t get all the seeds out — you do want the cucumber to impart just enough water to the infusion to allow for that magical ice crystal thing to happen. But if you left the seeds in, it would become too watery, and you end up with slush.
Chunk up the cuke, and put in an airtight container with enough vodka to cover, maybe a little more. In this case I used maybe up to 750 ml. Store in a cool, dry place for about seven days, but start tasting it at the five day mark. Strain with a coffee filter, and store the resulting infusion in the freezer for up to two or three months.
It wouldn’t be any fun if we only did the same things over and over again. Today I came across some gorgeous lychees at the 24th/Valencia market, and so an experiment was hatched.
Peeling lychees is like peeling leathery, spiky hard-boiled eggs. But the milky, succulent interiors feels so nice while you’re working with it. It’s a bit messy getting the pits out, but worth it in the end. Already it’s clear that the end product will be milky like the flesh of the fruit itself. A pic of the final carnage and infusion-in-process after the jump.
Update: Check out Martha from 2 Tasty Ladies‘s experiments in infusion!