One of my favorite aspects of summer is the wild riot of herbs that grow happily in our courtyard. I use them in savory dishes, but my true love is incorporating them into cocktails, baked goods, and ice cream. I also like to make infused syrups with them. It's an incredibly simple process, but the resulting syrup will keep in the refrigerator for up to three months, just about taking you through the end of summer.
You can add the flavored syrups to sparkling water to create herbal sodas, flavor and sweeten iced tea and lemonade, toss with fresh berries, brush onto a pound or sponge cake, or use to elevate simple cocktails. I keep them bottled and labeled, ready for spur-of-the-moment inspiration - which is exactly the way I think summer living should be - easy and spontaneous.
There's no real rule to the ratio of herbs to sugar and water, but for the best results, harvest your herbs just before making the syrups. If you're using herbs from the grocery, you may need to add a few more sprigs to get a concentrated flavor. But to set you off on your exploration, here are the basic guidelines that I follow for the more common herbs. I've also included a couple of extras, lavender and fig leaf. The lavender I cheat and buy dried from good markets, and the fig leaf isn't an herb, but the syrup is made in almost the same way. I figure while you're at it, why not try whatever you can find in the garden!
Add 1 cup sugar and 3/4 cup water to a saucepan and bring just to a boil, stirring to dissolve sugar. Turn off the heat, add the chosen herb (pushing the sprigs under the liquid), cover the pot and let steep until cool. Strain the syrup into an airtight container and store in the refrigerator for up to 3 months.
General guidelines for ratio of herbs to 1 cup sugar/3/4 cup water (increase as desired):
- Basil: Four 4-inch sprigs
- Lemon Verbena: Six 4-inch sprigs
- Mint: Eight 4-inch sprigs
- Rosemary: Two or three 4-inch sprigs
- Sage: Two or three 4-inch sprigs
- Tarragon: Six 4-inch sprigs
- English Thyme: Six 3-inch sprigs
- Lavender: 1-1 1/2 teaspoons dried buds (culinary lavender, found in better grocery stores)
- Fig Leaf: 8 fresh fig leaves, approximately 5 inches in length, 1 1/2 cups sugar, 1 1/2 cups water
I use a slightly different process for this one. Wash and dry your leaves, and cut off stems. Bring the water and sugar to a rolling boil, then add the leaves and let the mixture simmer for 15-20 minutes. Turn off the heat, cover, and let it cool. Remove leaves, pressing on them with a spoon to extract any additional syrup.
Sparkling Herb Sodas: In a glass, mix 2 - 4 tablespoons of herb infused syrup, a tablespoon of freshly squeezed lemon juice, and a few ounces of sparkling mineral water or club soda. Add ice cubes, stir well. Top with more sparkling water, if needed, and stir again. Garnish with an herb sprig.
Cocktail Ideas: If you Google herbal cocktails you'll come up with all kinds of combinations. But in the interest of simplicity, start small. Add a little rosemary or thyme syrup to gin (or vodka) with grapefruit juice, sage or lemon verbena to a gin and tonic, fig leaf to gin and pineapple juice, lavender to any lemon based cocktail or a margarita, mint to your favorite margarita recipe, etc.
I found this link to pairing herbs with fruit which may be helpful as well. But bottom line - Experiment and have fun!