Oleo saccharum. It sounds to me like an incantation a wizard should use to cast a spell. but in fact, it means oil and sugar or oily sugar.
What on earth would one do with oily sugar? It turns out that oleo saccharum is a common ingredient of cocktails, made from citrus zest and sugar. After you muddle, massage, or mix the zest with the sugar and let them “steep” together (like tea) in a covered container, the citrus oils flavor the sugar.
I love citrus in many forms. For a main course, I’m all in for fragrant rosemary chicken. And when we eat at a Chinese restaurant, I often order crispy orange beef. For dessert, I often make oranges in simple syrup, decorated with rind, or lemon mousse. And I’m a huge fan of candied citrus peel. Whether it’s orange (plain or spiced), lemon, or grapefruit, I can eat handfuls of it. And let’s not forget drinks, from lemon shrubs to limoncello. I’ve even been known to include oranges in my pickles.
So it comes as no surprise that I would love the idea of using citrus-flavored sugar in punch or cocktails. (I want to use it in desserts, but that’s another chapter.) Anyway, when we recently spent an afternoon with my daughter’s wonderful friend Christina, she told me about a delicious Campari grapefruit punch base for a drink called a radler. The punch base uses oleo saccharum.
I’d never heard of a radler or oleo saccharum. We’ve already covered oleo saccharum, but a radler? That turns out to be a beer and citrus drink. While a shandy (which I had heard of) is a mixture of beer and ginger ale or beer, apple or a citrus juice, a radler is specifically beer and citrus. I still haven’t made or tasted a radler, because I can’t get past oleo saccharum just yet. Christina, if you’re reading this, I do promise to try a radler sometime soon. In the meantime, I’m having a lot of fun.
If you research how to make oleo saccharum, you’ll find lots of ratios, mixtures, and advice. There are enough different ideas on how to make it that you could go mad trying to reconcile all the information. I’m still experimenting, but here are a few tips to get you started.
Tips on How to Make Oleo Saccharum
- Citrus Zest – When zesting the fruit, get rid of as much of the pith as possible. Pith is the white part between the rind the part of the fruit that you eat. (Some people say rind includes the white pith, while others say that peel is the word for the outer covering plus pith and that rind is the same as zest. Given that disagreement, I use the term “zest,” which everyone seems to agree is just the thin outer layer.)
- Ratio – The ratio between citrus and sugar can vary tremendously. Bon Appetit uses a dozen pieces of citrus (4 lemons and 8 clementines) to 1/2 cup sugar, while Jeffrey Morgenthaler uses 12 lemons to 1 pound of (superfine) sugar. Michael Dietsch in a Serious Eats article mentions the ratio of 2 ounces of sugar for each lemon’s worth of zest (from noted expert David Wondrich), but then counsels eyeballing it. And of course, those ratios go haywire when you’re dealing with grapefruit.
- Method – If you have a vacuum sealer, that seems to be the easiest way to draw the essential oils out of the citrus and into the sugar. However, unless you have a vacuum sealer for doing sous vide, or have a commercial kitchen, you’re unlikely to have access to that special piece of equipment. The recipes for homemade oleo saccharum suggest simply muddling, massaging, or mixing the zest and sugar with your (clean) hands (or a kitchen implement), then sealing the mixture in a tightly covered bowl or plastic bag and letting it rest. Superfine or bar sugar dissolves more easily than regular white granulated sugar, so if you have can get it, use superfine.
- Resting time – The minimum time is 1 hour, but several recipes suggest leaving the mixture to steep overnight.
- To add water or not? – Saveur suggests adding a “bit” of hot water at the end to help dissolve the sugar. One recipe (for grapefruit oleo saccharum) calls for 1 grapefruit, 2 cups of sugar and 1 cup of boiling water. Another recipe calls for 6 lemons, 1- 1/2 cups white sugar and 1/4 cup boiling water.
- Removing the zest – Maybe I missed something, but I did not see mention of what a pain it is to remove the zest from the mixture once you’re done making the oleo saccharum. I scraped the last bits of sugar off of the pieces of zest because I am a bit obsessive. But don’t bother if you’re willing to sacrifice what clings to the zest.
My recipe: 2 ruby red grapefruits, 12 ounces of superfine sugar, and 3 tablespoons of boiling water at the end. I muddled it a couple of times during a 24-hour period. My finished product was not clear and some sugar did not dissolve until I added the boiling water. In any event, it worked fine once I used it as an ingredient in drinks.
Tomorrow: Using grapefruit oleo saccharum for a Campari grapefruit punch base.