Homemade lemonade is an essential taste of summer. But concentrates and powders simply won't suffice.
Luckily, great homemade lemonade is as easy as remembering a few numbers — 3-1-1-1. Three cups of cold water, 1 cup of lemon juice, 1 cup of sugar and 1 more cup of water to make the sugar syrup.
The sugar syrup — also called simple syrup — is the key to perfect homemade lemonade. As anyone who has tried to sweeten ice tea knows, sugar does not dissolve well in cold liquids. But simple syrup — a blend of (typically) equal parts sugar and water that was heated briefly to help the sugar dissolve — mixes beautifully into lemonade, ice tea or cocktails.
When shopping for lemons for lemonade, buy large lemons that feel heavy and are squeezable. I am sure that I am not the only one who has purchased lemons only to cut them and find that half the lemon is rind and there is very little juice. For that reason, I always buy a couple extra. If I think I can get 1 cup of juice from 6 lemons, I buy 8.
As soon as I bring them home, I soak the lemons in a solution of white vinegar and water to minimize any molding or rotting. Often, a bag of lemons with one slightly moldy lemon becomes a whole bag of rotten lemons overnight if you don't do this. And you don't have to stop at lemons; this is a great way to wash all fruits and vegetables.
Before you juice them, soak the lemons in warm water or microwave them for 10 seconds. The heat relaxes the juice pouches and makes it easier to extract the most juice from each lemon. Then, before you cut them in half, roll the lemons on the counter with your palm, exerting some pressure. This also helps get the juices flowing.
Once the juice is strained of excess pulp and seeds, and the simple syrup is cooled, you are ready to mix your lemonade. This can be done up to 2 days in advance. Also, be careful not to add too much water. The lemonade should be slightly concentrated because the ice in the glass will dilute it a bit. For that reason, I never add the ice to the pitcher, only to the glasses.
Experiment with making this same basic recipe with limes, Meyer lemons and oranges, scaling back on the simple syrup based on the sweetness of the fruit. And once you master the base recipe, you are ready to try variations. My favorite is strawberry lemonade, but don't stop there. Try any summer berry, honeydew melon, peaches and summer herbs. I use the rule of thumb that 2 cups of ripe fruit should yield more or less a cup of juice once it is strained. I use my juicer, but you can use a blender and a fine mesh strainer just as easily.
You also can freeze this fruit juice into ice cubes and serve the lemonade over fruit ice. The flavor variation will be more delicate, but it is pretty and you will get more and more fruit flavor as the ice melts. If I make the lemonade in a pitcher or a large mason jar, I float thin slices of lemon or berries in it for a refreshing and pretty summertime look.
ROCKING CHAIR LEMONADE
For a rustic presentation, serve in mismatched canning jars. Then just sit back in an old rocking chair on the porch and let summer begin! If you are concerned that the lemonade will be too sweet, start with 1/2 cup or 3/4 cup of the sugar syrup, then taste before adding more.
Start to finish: 30 minutes (10 minutes active)
1 cup warm tap water
1 cup sugar
1 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (about 6 lemons)
3 cups cold water
1 lemon, thinly sliced
Fresh mint leaves (optional)
In a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan over low heat, stir together the warm water and sugar. Bring to a simmer, stirring, until the sugar has dissolved. Increase heat to medium and bring to a boil. Cook for 2 minutes, then set aside off the heat to cool.
Once the syrup is cool, pour it into a 2-quart pitcher. Add the lemon juice and cold water, then stir well. Garnish with lemon slices and fresh mint. Serve over ice.
• STRAWBERRY LEMONADE: Puree 2 cups of cleaned and hulled fresh strawberries in a juicer or blender. If using a blender, press the puree through a mesh strainer to remove any large pieces of pulp. Add the strawberry puree to the lemonade recipe above, but reduce the cold water to 2 cups.
• LEMON DROP COCKTAIL: From the recipe above, mix the lemon juice and simple syrup with 2 cups of cold water. Add 1 cup of lemon-flavored or other vodka and 1/3 cup of orange liqueur. Mix well. Frost the glasses with a sugar rim and pour over crushed ice. Add a slice of lemon for garnish.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Elizabeth Karmel is a grilling and Southern foods expert and executive chef at Hill Country Barbecue Market restaurants in New York and Washington, as well as Hill Country Chicken in New York. She is the author of three cookbooks, including "Soaked, Slathered and Seasoned."