Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Simple Syrup

3 Sugar Cubes and reflections on black acrylic

Sugar has a split personality.

On the up side, it tastes good — really good.  A small amount can enhance and highlight flavors in many foods, making them sparkle.  It can also mute the harshness in foods that are too acidic (some tomato sauces, for example).  And in baking it has a myriad of uses, including tenderizing (it often replaces fat in “low fat” foods for just this reason).

On the down side, sugar’s detriments are only too well understood.  It’s highly caloric and of minimal nutritional value.  Some think it’s addictive.  And — oh, heck, if you aren’t already mentally listing a dozen “problems” with sugar, you aren’t half trying.

So should we embrace sugar for its positives or banish it for its negatives?

Well, the Kitchen Riffs household believes in moderation.  We don’t always practice that philosophy, mind you, but we believe in it.  So we use sugar, at least sometimes.  When it comes to sweetening cold drinks — especially lemonade or the stray cocktail — we like to use Simple Syrup, which is basically just sugar and water.

Simply Syrup has great natural flavor and it dissolves instantly in a drink.  It’s also one of the easiest recipes around.  I’m sure there will be no divided opinions on that issue.

Recipe:  Simple Syrup

Dissolve ordinary table sugar in an equal quantity of water.  Place in a bottle, store in the refrigerator.

That’s it — the entire recipe!  And use granulated sugar.  The pictures show sugar cubes because they're fun to photograph.

Often, the recipe instructions you see will specify a cup each of sugar and water, which yields 1½ cups of syrup.  

Notice I didn’t say 2 cups of syrup.  What happened to the “missing” half cup?  Well, if you were paying attention in high school chemistry, you’ll recall that as sugar dissolves, its molecules start to occupy some of the previously empty spaces between the water’s molecules.  (Or maybe I wasn't paying attention and it's the other way around!  See comment from August 7, 2013.) So the sugar solution you end up with is more dense than water alone would be, but not that much greater in volume. 

The Easiest Way to Make Simple Syrup

I like to keep Simple Syrup in a squeeze bottle, which makes it easy to dispense.  So I make my syrup right in the bottle.  And I don’t measure anything.

I fill the bottle about ¾ full of sugar (to counteract that molecule thing), then top it up with hot water (which I heat in an electric kettle).  

Then I stir with a long-handled spoon or chopstick.  Sometimes I cap the container and shake.  You’ll find as the sugar dissolves that you’ll need to add more water (molecules again).  When the liquid is clear and I don’t see any sugar crystals, I know the sugar is completely dissolved and the syrup is “finished.”

This is really all you need to know.  But you probably have some questions.  Luckily, I have a few answers.
3 Sugar Cubes and reflections on black acrylic

Should You Simmer the Sugar in the Water to Help It Dissolve?

Many recipes for Simple Syrup suggest bringing the sugar and water mixture to a boil and simmering it for a few minutes (no more than 5).  This does help the sugar dissolve somewhat faster, particularly if you are making Rich Syrup (see next section).  But it’s also extra trouble and mess.

You can actually make Simple Syrup with cold water.  It will just take a little longer.  As described above, I usually heat water in a kettle, and just add it to the sugar.  It’s not necessary to boil sugar and water together.

The Difference Between Simple Syrup and Rich Syrup

Simple Syrup has a 1:1 ratio (one part sugar to one part water).  Rich Syrup has a 2:1 ratio (two parts sugar to one part water), and thus is twice as sweet.  Rich Syrup gives you more sweetening effect with smaller volume.

Many bartenders and cocktail blogs prefer Rich Syrup.  In fact, Darcy O’Neil’s Art of Drink calls it “pretty much standard for most cocktails.”

But I don’t care for Rich Syrup myself.  I find that it’s too easy to over-sweeten drinks when using it.  And once a drink is too sweet, it’s hard to “fix” it.

With Simple Syrup, you’re more likely to under sweeten — but that rarely creates a problem.  It’s easy enough to add a few drops more syrup.  Besides, the extra volume that a leaner sugar solution adds to the drink gives you a larger drink without adding more alcohol.

By the way, a teaspoon of syrup (whether simple or rich) does not equal the sweetness of a teaspoon of sugar.  Darcy O’Neil (who trained as a chemist) explains that to achieve the equivalent sweetness, you need approximately 4 parts sugar to 3 parts water (a ratio of about 1.33:1).

Should I Measure the Sugar and Water by Weight or Volume?

If you’re bound and determined to measure your sugar and water and use the simmering method, you can either weigh or measure by volume.  When you measure by volume, you’ll end up with a slightly weaker mixture — because 1 cup of sugar weighs slightly less than 8 ounces and 1 cup of water weighs slightly more — but the resulting syrup will be good enough.  This isn’t chemistry class, after all; you’re not going to be graded.

By the way, to prove to myself (and to you) that my no-measure method of making Simple Syrup is sufficiently precise, the last time I made it I weighed all the inputs.  I made my syrup in a 10-ounce squeeze bottle that weighed one ounce when empty.  I added 7.5 ounces of sugar to the container, which filled it to approximately the ¾ point.  I ended up adding 7.25 ounces of water.  This gave me a slightly richer ratio than 1:1 (1.16:1, to be exact), but one that was good enough for my purposes.
simple syrup in squeeze bottle


What Container Should I Use to Store Simple Syrup?

You can store Simple Syrup in anything with a lid.  I use a plastic squeeze bottle because it’s easy to squirt the syrup into whatever needs sweetening.

Just make sure your container is clean before you add the sugar and water, because you don’t want to speed spoilage (see next section).  I always run my container through the dishwasher.  Most dishwasher detergents contain chlorine, which is an excellent sterilizer.

How Long Will Simple Syrup Keep in the Refrigerator?

Sugar is a natural preservative (think glacé fruit), so Simple Syrup keeps for a while in the refrigerator.  Eventually mold will begin to grow, however.

Some people add a bit of vodka (a tablespoon or two) to Simple Syrup to retard spoilage.  But I always use my syrup quickly enough that I’ve never encountered mold.

Camper English tested how long you can store Simple Syrup before it starts to spoil, and wrote about it on his blog, Alcademics.  He found that Simple Syrup lasted a month in the refrigerator.  With a tablespoon of vodka added to the bottle, it lasted 3 months.  Rich Syrup lasted 6 months because of its higher sugar content (even longer with added vodka).

So if it takes more than a month for you to use your syrup, either add some vodka to it (not Grey Goose — use the cheap stuff) or just plan on making a new batch each month.

For Cocktails, the Best Solution

Cocktails are almost always served cold.  But it takes a while for granular sugar to dissolve in cold liquids.  So how to sweeten a cocktail?  Simple Syrup is the best solution.

“Solution.”  Get it?  OK, never mind.

Anyway, later this week, we’ll put Simple Syrup to work in a seasonally appropriate cocktail, The Sazerac.

I’m looking forward to it.  Trying to remember my high school chemistry has suddenly made me crave a beverage with some starch in it — to help me forget high school chemistry.
tower of sugar cubes and reflections on black acrylic

You may also enjoy reading about:

Pimm's Cup Cocktail
Mai Tai Cocktail
The Income Tax Cocktail
The Sazerac Cocktail
The Corpse Reviver Cocktail

12 comments:

  1. Thank you, thank you for all your information. It took me over 20 websites to find the answer to the question: 1 cup water, 1 cup sugar yields how much. You had the answer, 1 1/2 cup.
    Now I can start my concoction of homemade limoncello!
    G Abrams

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    1. Hi Anonymous, glad you found this post useful! And thanks for commenting.

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  2. Correct me if I'm wrong, but does that mean an OZ of 1:1 simple syrup has 3/4 the amount of calories as an OZ of granulated sugar then??

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    1. Hi Jim, I'm not qualified to calculate actual caloric values, but I believe the calories are going to be the same. I can see how each batch of simple syrup you make will vary about in terms of calories per teaspoon, because if you're like me you're not entirely consistent in measuring sugar and water (I just eyeball it). But in actual use, if the simple syrup is too sweet I use a little less; if not sweet enough, I use a little more. So the actual amount of sugar used to satisfy my taste buds is about the same. But I guess the short answer is: I don't know. ;-) Sorry I can be more definitive, but thanks for the question.

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  3. Thank you so much for your detailed and scientific post! I have a party to attend the day after I return from vacation and I am to bring syrups for mixers. I want to make my syrups (plain, mint, and chocolate) now so that I don't have to do it when I'm pressed for time the day before, but almost every recipe for simple syrup says it only keeps one week in the refrigerator. I just knew that couldn't be right, since sugar is a preservative and it would be kept cold, so I was very glad to find your post with accurate and tested information. Just to be safe, I'll make my syrups rich. Thanks!

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    1. Hi Jen, glad you found the post useful! If you're concerned about the syrup lasting, going the rich route is your best bet. Or you can add just a little bit of pure grain alcohol, or even vodka, to help retard spoilage (although you're adding just a bit of booze to the syrup too - not good if you'll be adding it to things that nondrinkers will be consuming). All of that said, the basic simple syrup really does keep a good month in the refrigerator. Thanks for the comment.

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  4. "Well, if you were paying attention in high school chemistry, you’ll recall that as sugar dissolves, its molecules start to occupy some of the previously empty spaces between the water’s molecules."

    Ummm... the water molecules (HOH) are significantly smaller than the glucose ones (C6H12O6), so it is actually the other way around -- the water first fills up the space in between [and to an extent, within] the sugar molecules... :) Think of the water like packing peanuts around the television sized glucose....

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    1. Hi Anonymous, obviously I wasn't paying attention! Thanks for the correction. And for taking time to comment.

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    2. Always happy to help clarify scientific facts! :)

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    3. Always happy to be corrected! Thanks.

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  5. So glad you did put this information here for us, but, my question still was not answered. Could you tell me how long simple sugar will last not refrigerated. As we know, Disney theme parks do not sweeten their iced tea, carrying around Simple Syrup with me in the Florida heat, will using Simple Syrup be safe if taking it in a small squeeze bottle each day and will the same squeeze bottle last the week (storing it in the resort refrigerator at night...hoping I don't forget to take it each day). Oh, and adding any type of booze to it to get into Disney if detected going through security will be confiscated, so adding booze is not an option. I appreciate your help please.

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    1. Hi Linda, alas, I don't know the answer to your question. I do know people who don't refrigerate their simple syrup, and my impression is it lasts for a couple of weeks. I'm guessing, but I would think it would be OK to carry your simple syrup outside all day, and refrigerate it at night. If it doesn't you can of course always add some sugar from those little packets to your iced tea, but they do take some time to dissolve. If I were in your shoes I'd give it a try just to see what happened. Let me know how it works! And thanks for reading, and asking a question.

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