Jerks have never been so popular. Soda jerks, that is. Americans are rediscovering a lust for fizzes with a fervor not seen since the turn of the 19th century. Sales of the Sodastream, the home water carbonator, were up nearly 300 percent last year. My fiancé bought me one for my birthday, and I haven’t stopped jerking since. She understands.
Making soda at home is cheaper and I daresay healthier than opening a gas station cooler, since the average amateur pop artist isn’t sweetening their drinks with buckets of high fructose corn syrup. But here’s the real reason it’s better: you get to make up amazing flavors, especially if you use great produce. There are few nobler deaths for overripe fruit.
Start with your basic simple syrup recipe: an even ratio of sugar to water. Two cups of each will make about a pint of syrup, enough to flavor about four liters of soda, depending on how sweet you like it. Add half a teaspoon of tartaric or citric acid, a natural preservative available online or at home-brew shops. The acid will bring balance, clarity and a Sour Patch tang to these sweet syrups, and more importantly, help them keep in the fridge up to a few months, a trick I learned from Katie Loeb, bartender and cordial tinkerer at the Oyster House in my hometown of Philadelphia.
Bring the water, sugar and acid to a boil with your flavoring agents, then simmer 15-20 minutes and cool completely. Herb or spice syrups like mint, chamomile and cinnamon only need to be strained, preferably through a cheesecloth-lined sieve. Ditto for syrups involving juicy berries and cherries; over the heat, these fruits will bleed as willingly as Fangtasia patrons, so there’s no need to puree. A blender makes quick work of the less acquiescent fruits: melons, pineapple, pitted peaches and plums, apples and pears, etc. After they’ve cooked and cooled, puree these syrups on high for a silky consistency. Use the syrups immediately in soda water, and keep the leftovers in the fridge. It’s that easy.
Starting with this basic recipe, you can customize your syrups with anything in the garden and pantry. Cardamom? Jasmine tea? That bergamot bush you planted and now have no idea what to do with? It all plays. The beauty of homemade soda syrups is that they’re very forgiving. You almost can’t mess them up. But before you get simmering, just keep these tips in mind:
- While straight herbal or spice syrups require no adjustment of the 2+2+½ formula, fruit ones do. Remove half a cup of water for fruit syrups that don’t need pureeing and a full cup for syrups ones that do.
- If you’re using citrus juices, add them separately after the syrup has cooled.
- Adjust the sugar based on the natural sweetness of fruit.
But really the best advice is to experiment and have a spoon handy. At-home soda auteurs should apply the same wisdom honored by the best chefs: Taste as you go.
A bunch of recipes to get you started
Start with the base syrup recipe of 2 cups water + 2 cups sugar + ½ teaspoon tartaric acid (adjusted to the above guidelines), then add:
- Watermelon Mint = 1 bunch mint + 2 cups cubed seedless watermelon + peeled zest of 1 lime + pinch chili powder
In steamy Bangkok, street vendors sell cellophane bags of cut-up fruit dusted in chili and lime. This syrup echoes those flavors and stars summer’s blushing belle, watermelon.
- Dark & Stormy = 1 cup of fresh ginger, cut into ½-inch pieces + ¼ cup dark rum + peeled zest of 1 lime + juice of 1 lime
One of the earth’s great cocktails distilled into a virgin syrup. (The simmering boils off the rum’s alcohol.) Try replacing a cup of sugar with a cup blackstrap molasses for a richer result.
- Honey Chamomile = 3 chamomile teabags (or 1 bunch fresh chamomile) + peeled zest of 1 lemon + 1 cup honey (replaces 1 cup sugar)
Reputation for relaxation? Not this chamomile syrup; sweetened with honey, it’s a kick-ass complement to gin.
- Cherry Almond = 1 cup pitted tart cherries + 1 teaspoon almond extract + pinch Chinese five spice powder (optional, but very nice)
Sweet almond rounds out the lip-smacking twang of tart cherries. The resulting soda loves dark rum and Tiki cocktails.
- Mexican Root Beer = 1 bunch hoja santa + 1 drop lemon oil
This easy riff on Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s popular herbal green root beer uses the Mexican herb hoja santa in lieu of tarragon. Redolent of anise, cinnamon and birch, these “holy leaves” (find them at Mexican grocers) have all the soda’s flavors in a single package. No wonder the herb’s nickname is “root beer plant.”
- Matcha Melon = 3 green teabags + 2 cups fresh honeydew + peeled zest of 1 lime
Brewed triple-strength, delicate green tea becomes a flower powerhouse that matches well with fruity honeydew. Try it with cantaloupe, too.
- Mint Chip = 1 bunch chocolate mint + 1 teaspoon cocoa powder + 2 drops natural green food coloring
For a soda that drinks like a dessert, start with fragrant chocolate mint (available at many farmers’ markets). Cocoa powder enhances the herb’s innate chocolate flavor.
- Honeysuckle Peach = 2 cups peaches, peeled, pitted and quartered + 1 bunch fresh honeysuckle
Fresh blossoms give this peach syrup an intoxicating perfume and flavor. Quadruple the recipe as a base for sorbet, ice pops or granita.
- Tom Kha = ½ cup coconut cream + 4 kaffir lime leaves + 1 stalk bruised lemongrass + 1-inch piece fresh galangal, lightly smashed
This exotic, ivory syrup is inspired by the aromatics in Thai tom kha, or coconut soup. If you can’t find galangal, substitute with ginger.
- Shiso (or Mint) Orange = 1 bunch fresh shiso or mint + peeled zest of 2 oranges + juice of 1 orange, strained of pulp
Who loves orange soda? Everyone when it’s paired with minty, cinnamony, sawtoothed shiso.
- Spiced Plum = 2 cups plums, peeled, pitted and quartered + peeled zest of 2 limes + juice of 1 lime, strained of pulp + 1 teaspoon cloves
Plums and lime say summer, while the cloves evoke mulled cider on snowy mornings, but this seemingly incongruous trinity go surprisingly well together. I first tried them in a chutney paired with foie gras at Philly’s acclaimed French BYOB Bibou. Turns out, they’re just as happy in glass of soda.