Simple Syrup

If you need to add a sweet element, but the temperature required does not facilitate the melting of raw sugar, simple syrup is the way to go! Like most Greeks deserts, simple syrup is applied to a large variety of sweets like baklava and galactoboureko. In America, simple syrup is the common sweetener for iced tea and coffee. Simple syrup is also on of the best ingredients for cocktails. Syrup brighten ups the flavors and take the sharpness of harsh liquor.

As the name implies, it is simple to make. It relies on some simple physics and chemistry concepts that, once you master, you will be the expert on simple syrup! The perfect simple syrup must deliver the sweetness without diluting too much the cocktail, tea or coffee. It should also create some substance to the mouth and develop a rich taste. To do that simple syrup, we need to create the perfect proportion of sugar and water. The average home probably doesn’t have a refractometer or a diachronic polarizer, so we shall rely on simple chemistry and physics.

Pure liquids have two basic properties; freezing point and boiling point. Both correspond to a phase transformation: solid (ice in the case of water) and gas (steam for water). Water freezes at 32 F (0 ºC) and boils at 212 F (100 ºC), right? Yes and no. This applies to pure water (at the level of the sea). When you add any other molecules, things change. Freezing is the alignment of the water molecules form a repeated structure called a crystal. When other molecules get into the mix, that process is disturbed, requiring further lowering of the temperature to achieve it. In the case of water, it forms a slushy concoction which can be very refreshing in the summer. That is one of the reasons that “slushies” are softer than ice. It only partially freezes since it has water and sugar.

Water

Top: The randomly oriented water molecules align to form the ice crystal. Bottom: When sugar or other molecules are present the process happens only partially as the presence of sugar molecules disrupts the structure of the ice.

When a liquid is boiling, the molecules enter a gas phase through the exposed surface. When there are other molecules in the mix, the available area for evaporation is reduced. We will need to further raise the heat to achieve evaporation  and thus increasing the evaporation point. When we are making syrup, the sugar is expected to increase the boiling point of the water. The more we boil, the more water evaporates, and therefore, the sugar concentration further increases, driving the boiling point higher, evaporating more water, increasing the sugar concentration etc.

Steam

The presence of sugar (green triangle) reduces the available area for evaporation, resulting therefore the liquid to gas transformation. To counter that more heat is required thus increasing the boiling point.

It is a cycle that results in a linear relationship between temperature and sugar concentration. If we know the temperature, we know the sugar concentration. It makes things simpler to talk directly to temperature rather than converting all the time. For the simple syrup, the number you should focus on is 105 ºC or 221 F. This will result in the syrup to achieve a nice consistency, darkened color and, because the intense heat will break some of the sucrose to glucose, slightly sweeter  than sugar.

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Finally here are the ingredients:

  • Sugar
  • Water
  • Lemon

As expected, there is sugar and water. The lemon is there to give the mixture something “extra”. A sour flavor to tease the tastebuds, if you will.  Moreover, the peel has pectin, a molecule that when it mingles with water in acidic environment, it thickens. That is the secret behind jellies and jams.

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I didn’t specify amounts because you can make as much as you want. The secret is an equal amount of sugar and water. I know what you are thinking: “I will add more sugar so I don’t have to wait for very long” or “I can add more water just to be sure”. Both statements are wrong. Adding more sugar will immediately raise the boiling temperature and by the time you see evaporating bubbles, the 105°C point will be much gone. In fact the ratio 1 water : 2 sugar will raise the boiling point at 112 °C. Much higher than what you need. On the other hand, adding more water will delay the process, exposing the sugar for much longer to the the harsh heat. That will further darken the color and will develop a caramel color. Not that there is anything wrong with a thicker syrup or a caramel color, but it will throw off your recipe. Remember: a thicker syrup will be harder to dissolve.

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I add a little over 2 cups of sugar that is…

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455 gr. Se we need to add the same amount, by weight of water.

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Tare the scale…

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And pour in the water.

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There… 4 grams more.

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Bring it to the stove.

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Mix it and let it boil.

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Now the lemon.

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Cut in half

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Squeeze the juice in the syrup.

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And from the other half cut the peel off (that’s where the pectin is)

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Through that in and let the boiling continue.

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Of course you need a thermometer. I use a candy/fry thermometer. The old days the whole temperature thing was unknown so they used to refer to the proper temperature based on the way the syrup behaves when thrown in the cold water. That ‘s what you see on the thermometer as hard crack, soft crack, firm ball etc. We don’t need that. We know the theory now. Also as you notice there is a lot of crap floating. That is because I used Demerara sugar that is in a more raw stage than the refined. It is not healthier since by a 99.9% is the same as the regular white sugar. I like it better though because it give a deeper molasses flavor that is complex and unique.

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The boiling starts at 100C.

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While the water evaporates the boiling point goes higher…

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Until it gets to 105 C. We are done!

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Get a wide bowl with iced water.

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Put the pot in the bowl of ice to cool the syrup. Sugar syrup can get to very high temperatures, even if we yielded at 105C. Since the syrup is very dense, it can cause serious burns. They don’t call it culinary napalm for nothing!

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I set up a rig with my meat thermometer and when it the temperature falls below 100 F (37 C) I will handle it.

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Bingo!

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Now wipe to pot (you don’t want the water to drip in the syrup while you pour it out)…

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And pass it through a strainer to get the lemon seeds and peels.

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Now you can store it for your favorite applications.

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I put it a squeeze bottle to make handling easy.

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There you have it! You can use this procedure to make flavored syrups. Vanilla, rosemary, citrus… You can also use darker sugar or whiter or even a mixture. Anything that you like… sky is the limit!

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