Why do bar-made drinks taste better than home-made drinks? One answer is that bartenders brew up simple syrups in all kinds of flavors that you can’t buy at a store. Chile pepper-infused syrups are among those flavors.
That’s not because infused syrups are hard to make — they are, pardon the pun, simple. But some flavors are ephemeral — think of fresh tomato slices, and newly-peeled cucumbers. Those tantalizing aromas and flavors are fleeting, and even the best bottling and preservation methods can’t capture the freshness, the juicy texture. Chile peppers are like that too. They have a certain vegetal taste and fresh heat that just doesn’t keep. Confined to a bottle, it turns harsh, black pepper-y and sulfurous (think rotten eggs). Your best bet is to do what bars do: make a small-batch infusion to add gentle heat to drinks. Here’s how:
1. Start with fresh chile peppers. They should be smooth, brightly colored (I love the orange habaneros!) and not too wrinkly. Note the rubber gloves – I definitely recommend wearing gloves when cutting chiles, especially the hotter ones like habanero peppers.
2. Trim off the stem end, and slice the peppers in half for a faster, hotter infusion. Keep the seeds and the white ribs inside, where most of the heat resides. The first photo below shows the habs I used in the syrup; the second photo shows a pepper with dark seeds on the verge of rot, which I tossed out.
3. In a small saucepan, combine 1 cup of water and 1 cup of granulated sugar. Set the stove burner to high; you want the water to boil. While you’re waiting (and you won’t wait long), stir the sugar into the water until it dissolves. The mixture will go from milky white to clear. At that point, stir in the habanero pieces.
4. Allow the mixture to come to a rapid boil, and then immediately turn the heat down so it just simmers. Let it simmer for 10 minutes, and then remove from the heat. The syrup will reduce and thicken slightly, and will take on a faint orange tinge.
5. Allow the syrup to cool (about 30 minutes). Remove the pepper pieces and any stray floating seeds, and discard them. Decant the syrup into a squeeze bottle (or any container with a lid) and close tightly. And don’t forget to label the syrup!
The finished habanero syrup will keep, refrigerated, for about 2 weeks. Try using it in any cocktail — but add a “Dragonfire” or “Fiery” in front of the name. Try it and let me know what you think!