Keeping Lime Juice Fresh Indefinitely: A New Technique

Fresh citrus juice has become somewhat of a fetish in our industry, for reasons that are understandable. We are, as a community, still suffering from PTSD caused by too many cloying, artificially-flavored “martinis” served for too many decades.

Fresh citrus juice, however, is very economically unfriendly. It’s labor-intense. There’s nothing worse than staring down a line of customers and having to stop to juice 5 limes. And citrus ain’t cheap, especially at certain times of the year when the cost of fruit triples and their yield halves. There are times when the citrus in the drink costs more than the liquor.

On the other hand, anyone who has ever tried day-old lime juice (or worse, the pasteurized stuff) can tell you it’s just not the same. It doesn’t have that same brightness.

In a perfect world, citrus juice would last weeks. Then you could juice it all at once. (This has the side benefit of making cheap Chinese Zumex knockoffs like the one I got economical. More on that in a second.) If you had extra, you could use it tomorrow. Or the next day. You’d never run out of what you made pre-shift, and never pour any down the drain. You’d also be using all-natural ingredients and techniques, because you don’t want to serve anything you wouldn’t want to eat.

Well, I’ve got a solution.

To understand you have to go back to the whole citrus. The whole fruit contains a number of different things. It’s mostly water. It contains all sorts of other chemicals, trapped in its vesicles, the most flavorful of which are citric acid in lemons, and in limes citric and malic acids, with a touch of succinic. But the most flavorful component of all is the oil trapped in the peels.

When you squeeze a lime, you’re not seeing it but you’re also expressing that beautiful oil into the juice. You probably think that because it’s a tiny, tiny fraction of the juice that it doesn’t make much difference. Go ahead and buy yourself some lime essential oil and squeeze one tiny drop onto your tongue if you want to see just how wrong that is. In fact, even one drop of lemon essential oil added to an entire drink can make it taste like Pledge.

The essential oil is the most distinctive flavor ingredient in citrus juice. Want to try it out more diluted? Get a La Croix or a similar, 0 calorie flavored carbonated water. They’re basically just essential oil flavors emulsified into carbonated water. Lime La Croix has no actual lime juice in it, just lime essential oil.

Essential oils have one problem: they are very sensitive to pH and citrus juice is very acidic. They both have a pH as low as 2. That’s not a problem when they’re sitting in oil sacs in the outside layer of the citrus (called the flavedo) and separated from the juicy vesicles by the pith (the albedo). But when you squeeze citrus and combine the oils that are normally separated from the juice, breakdown begins immediately.

Modernist Cuisine offers two solutions for this problem. The first is to simply dope older citrus juice with fresh stuff shortly before serving time. This is what I do during camper season. If I have a gallon of lime juice leftover from the previous weekend (usually out of 5 gallons I started with) I’ll just add it to the next batch. Easy peasy. I just juice a little less and pour it all into the keg.

In a bar setting this might be less ideal. So another option is to emulsify some lime essential oil (you can buy the food-grade stuff pretty easily online) with gum Arabic and just add it in. I’ve been playing with the idea of diluting it down enough to put it in an atomizer and spray over the drink or onto the glass before the drink goes in, but I haven’t had a chance to test it yet.

Another undesirable reaction is occurring at the same time: oxidation. This is pretty easy to stop, you just put the juice in a keg and purge with nitrogen. Fill the keg with nitrogen, then purge, and repeat a couple times to try to get as much oxygen as you can out. Then shake the crap out of it to try to knock as much dissolved oxygen as you can out of suspension, purge, and repeat a couple times. It takes a minute or two, but you can get it to a pretty low dissolved oxygen level. (Any of my readers want to loan me a DO meter?)

By doing both of these, you get lime juice that lasts. I’ve used week-old lime juice side by side with same day stuff and in a cocktail you can’t tell the difference. My overall process is as follows now.

1. Juice limes no more than a day before serving. If you’re doing regular bar service, Friday shortly before you open would be a great time and probably get you through Saturday.

I found myself juicing at least one case of citrus every Friday, and sometimes more like 5 depending on my weekend. Being a solo entrepreneur, that kind of time commitment with the old hand press just wasn’t going to scale. So I got myself a knockoff Chinese version of a Zumex.

It works great. It has a couple downsides, in that it needs a few modifications I plan to make over the winter. The tray that holds the juice is really hard to clean if you don’t unscrew it every time, so I bought thumbscrews to make that easy. It still needs me to make it a gasket. The thing leaks juice everywhere, and because it’s sized for oranges, it’s probably getting less juice out of smaller citrus than you’d get with a Zumex kitted with the lemon/lime adapters. But, it does a whole case of limes in like 10 minutes with no arm strain, so it cuts my time down enough to recoup that cost.

Cleanup is about 10 minutes, so you don’t save much time if you’re only juicing a few dozen limes. Which is yet another reason to use my method: juicing once every few days for a small bar saves you the daily chore.

Of course you must fine-strain what comes out or else you’ll risk jamming your kegs or faucets. (I find the faucets usually jam due to particulate matter, but the kegs due to sludgy things like honey that wasn’t dissolved well-enough.)

 

2. Put juice in nitrogen-purged keg, of course keeping refrigerated at all times.

3. Pour lime juice into bottles with pour spouts for service. (Anything left does not go back in at the end but gets saved for cordial down the line.) For big events, I have a dedicated tap for lime juice in my camper, allowing me to keep it under nitrogen the whole time.

4. Repeat next week by adding leftovers to fresh juice. I find at least 50% fresh juice makes it taste great.

After a few weeks of this I’ll usually have a weekend where I run out and start over, but if I don’t, I’ll take the little that’s left and add it to the keg of cordial stuff. (And yes, that’s why I do a preponderance of gimlets later in the season. I’m currently sitting on about 6 gallons of cordial!)

So there’s my process. It’s extremely time-efficient, keeps lime juice from being wasted (I have damn-near zero waste) with minimal effort, and thus saves on both ingredient and labor costs. And with no reduction in quality. It’s really pretty simple, and the investment in equipment (the juice and kegging stuff probably adds up to over $1,000) pays for itself very, very quickly. I am sure it has saved me over 100 hours and a few hundred dollars in limes just this season. If I even valued my time at minimum wage (and of course, it’s way more) it would have still broken even.

 

Zooming In On Ingredients

Yesterday I was at the Diageo World Class seminar in Cleveland. A question popped up that really illuminated to me why the modern cocktail movement is basically playing in a different league than the old-school, classic cocktailers.

The question was something to the effect of “How many ingredients should be in a great cocktail.” The available answers were 3-4, 5-6, or as many as it takes. There was a handy-dandy live poll to see what people said and probably over 100 people in attendance.

From a classic perspective, the first two answers (which about 80% of people chose) would seem on the surface to make sense. A Manhattan is a fantastic cocktail, and its whiskey, bitters, and vermouth. Three ingredients right? A lot of people like to argue that if a cocktail has 7+ ingredients it’s a jumbled mess, and I think we’ve all had a bartender whose eagerness exceeds his skill level serve us a kitchen sink cocktail that was horrendous once or twice.

But let’s unpack that Manhattan for a second. First off, you have aromatic bitters. Let’s go with good old Angostura. What’s in Angostura? We don’t know exactly, but we know it’s a maceration of several different herbs in alcohol. This recipe from Serious Eats which attempts to replicate it contains 11 flavors (herbs, peels, raisin, sugar) in addition to whatever is in the alcohol. Ango is basically a blend of several different tinctures.

Then we have our sweet vermouth. Sweet vermouth is a lot like bitters. Several different herbs are added to wine, along with caramel for coloring and sweetness. Here’s a recipe from Serious Eats for those inclined to make their own. I count 12 separate ingredients, though perhaps we should ignore water as its already the predominate ingredient in every cocktail. And there are a couple overlapping with the bitters.

But you get my point. Before we’ve even added the rye, we’re probably close to 20 ingredients. And each ingredient itself is probably made of multiple different volatile organic compounds, not to mention all of the flavors in the rye that get through distilling or come from the wood after, but we’ll stay zoomed out a little bit for clarity here.

I’ve recently gotten into making tinctures a little bit. It’s a science I’d like to get down more. Unfortunately, in most states it’s hard to get really high proof neutral alcohol. Everclear has some bad flavors associated with it that make it unsuitable for really anything I think. I got a couple bottles of Technical Reserve, which is basically exactly what I am looking for but expensive and unavailable in most states, from New York to tide me over for a bit and I’ve been playing around with them. I’ll be delving more into it when I get a stable source of low cost, neutral, high proof spirits, which I think will be very soon.

 

My Home Bar

Here’s what I’m stocking at home.

Gin

Beefeater : Great well gin. Absolute steal for the price.

Plymouth: My G&T gin of choice.

Hayman’s Old Tom

Vodka

Sobieski: Cheap and as close to flavorless as it gets. You use vodka when you don’t want any liquor flavor, in my case usually for infusions, so spending on expensive ones seems silly to me.

Diesel 151: for making mint extracts, etc. High ABV, low flavor. Not really vodka, but close enough.

Rum

Flora de Cana Extra Dry: White rum.

Gosling’s Black Seal: Great dark rum. It’s a total well liquor, and one of my most popular.

Sailor Jerry: Friend of mine loves these in Coke so I stock it for him.

Meyer’s Dark

Cachaca

Leblon: only decent one available in Ohio and I haven’t tried any others. I need to remedy that.

Pisco

Porton: Only decent Pisco available in Ohio. I’d like to try more Piscos, but Porton makes a good sour.

Whiskey

Four Roses Yellow Label: Probably the bottle I go through the most of.

Old Overholt Rye: So good, and so cheap.

Rittenhouse Bonded Rye

Buffalo Trace Bourbon: Good midrange choice for sipping neat.

Few White Dog

Monkey Shoulder Blended Scotch

Bulleit Rye: Not bad but not worth the money, won’t buy again.

Tequila/Mezcal

Olmecca Altos Reposado: My favorite well tequila.

Del Maguey Vida Mezcal

Other

Batavia Arrack

Pernod Absinthe

Infusions

Toasted Corn Husk Bourbon: uses 4 Roses Yellow. Still my favorite cheap bourbon for infusing.

Banana Justino: Bananas blended into Gosling’s, then Pectinex clarified.

Aged Eggnog (not pictured): getting ready for the holidays. I keep this in the refrigerator though I think they’re shelf-stable at this point.

Strawberry Cachaca: One of my favorite flavor combos. I even put cachaca in my strawberry sorbets.

Brown Butter Rum

Lillet Blanc

Strawberry Olmecca Altos Reposado

Amaro/Herbal Liqueurs

Aperol

Campari

Nonino

Gran Classico

Green Chartreuse (need yellow)

Byrrh

Fernet Branca

Averna

Other Liqueurs

Luxardo

St. Germain

Laird’s Applejack

Cointreau

Damiana Liquer

Disaronno Amaretto

John D. Taylor’s Velvet Falernum

Crème de Violette

Midori

Vermouth

Carpano Antica Formula

Dolin Dry

Noilly Prat Dry

Martini Rossi Rosso

Droppers

Saline Solution

Peychaud’s Bitters

Angostura Bitters

Orange Bitters

Plum Bitters

Shrubs

Orange and craft beer vinegar

Blood orange and champagne vinegar

Meyer lemon and chardonnay vinegar

Meyer lemon and riesling vinegar

Blackberry and balsamic vinegar

Strawberry and white balsamic (2 versions)

Strawberry and champagne vinegar (2 versions)

Lime and champagne vinegar

Grapefruit and apple cider vinegar

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