Ah, Limoncello. Ever since that first sip on a terrazzo in Sorrento, Italy, I have been trying to find something at the same standard as that delightful concoction in the states. That has proven to be rather difficult as my benchmark came, not only from the country that invented limoncello, but the region that perfected it. Even "imported" limoncello just did not hold a candle to anything that we tried in Italy. So, I had two options open to me if I ever wanted to taste that elixir of the gods again: go back to Sorrento or make my own. While I would jump at any opportunity to return to the land of Michaelangelo and gelato, medical school had put a roadblock to travel plans. So I turned to internet to help me out. To my surprise, there were multiple ways to make limoncello that each person swore by. Vodka vs Grain alcohol. Direct immersion vs suspension. Zest vs Peel. So many choices. Here are a few of the many links I perused in my search. Suspension, Zest Immersion, Peel Immersion. I tried out a few ways, but there were too many variables to compare and keep track of. At the end of the day, there was really only one way to find out which recipe was truly the best: AN EXPERIMENT. I channeled my inner Bill Nye and came up with the following scenarios.
Basically, there were six scenarios, four with vodka and two with Everclear. I was a little skittish about using Everclear for the first time, so I decided to just try two conditions with it for the first go around. I used 200ml of vodka and 100ml of Everclear for each condition. For the lemons I used Meyer lemons, since they are supposed to be a little more sweet. Even though some of the recipes call for organic lemons, I just used the regular store bought kind. I was just careful to wash and scrub all the lemons thoroughly under hot water. For my containers, I used wide-mouth one quart mason jars.
Whole Lemon Immersion: This was the easiest. Just plop that sucker in the jar and close the lid.
Lemon Peel Immersion: This was the most time consuming. I used a regular vegetable peeler to get the peel off the lemon. It had a significant amount of white pith still stuck to it, so I had to use a serrated paring knife to get the peel off. Significant amounts of pith can lead to a bitter taste to the limoncello, so I tried to get as much off as possible. However, you don't have to go crazy. A little bit of pith is acceptable and okay. I found the Wusthof serrated paring knife worked wonders in getting the pith off.
|Pre and Post Depithing|
Lemon Zest Immersion: This method also took a little effort, but not as much as the peel. I found a microplane to be an essential tool for this job. It allowed me the best control over how deep I went and made very fine pieces of zest so that there was a lot of surface area to interact with the alcohol. After I collected all the zest, I just swirled the microplane in the alcohol a couple times and that was that.
|The lemon doesn't have to completely white after zesting|
Whole Lemon Suspension: This required the most materials, but was surprisingly quick. The concept behind this method is that, as alcohol vaporizes at room temperature, it rises, macerates the lemon peel and extracts the oils and then condenses on the side of the jar. And repeat. I got some restaurant grade butcher's twine and cheesecloth just to keep things safe. To prep, wrap the lemon in the cheesecloth and tie it off with the twine. Make sure to cut off all excess cheesecloth above the knot. Then suspend the lemon over the alcohol, but as close as possible and secure the twine in place by screwing the mason jar lid over it. I found that if I hung my lemons too high, the oils would condense on the twine, travel up and leak out. I don't why hanging the lemon lower prevents this. My guess is that the oil dense vapor can only rise so much before condensing, so the lower height gives it more chance to condense. However, this is pure conjecture and I will have to do more research into the subject. Hang your lemons low. Just trust me.
The Run Down
|Whole Lemon Immersion:Vodka|
|Peel Immersion: Vodka|
|Zest Immersion: Vodka|
|Whole Lemon Suspension: Vodka|
|Zest Immersion: Everclear|
|Whole Lemon Suspension: Everclear|
I used one lemon in each test condition because I wanted to keep things equal. So even though the recipes you see call more a greater ratio of lemon to alcohol, I want to see what method does the best job of extracting lemon flavor. So there is only zest from one lemon in each jar, and peel from one lemon. Once I figure out the best method, I'll go forward from there to optimize the flavor profile.
After all the jars are sealed, I like to leave them in a cool dark place for about 4 weeks. The end point should be a translucent yellow. If it starts looking brown, you know you've gone too far. I'll be posting picture updates every 2 weeks just to show how the limoncello are progressing and, of course, a post at the end of the month with the results of our blind taste test!