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Homemade Lemonade: A drink 3,000 Years In The Making

Is there anything more “summer” than a glass of homemade lemonade? Perhaps not. I write from the US, and here lemonade is a very “American”tradition. Hardly a summer day goes by where you can’t find an enterprising youngster running a lemonade stand. The lure of the sweet and tart summer drink is centuries old, and the perfect drink to cool you off on a hot summer day.  There may be no better drink on a hot summer day. (Well, maybe there is)

Lemonade seems very rooted in our culture. “Lemonade” was the nickname of a First Lady.  It is the name of a groundbreaking album by a pop legend.  And it gives its name to an insurance company. This week, the US celebrates National Lemonade Day. Its not a major holiday – businesses don’t close and school isn’t canceled. But it is a recognition of the long and storied history of lemonade in the US. It is such an American drink — or is it?

Well – you probably know what my answer is since my blog is about Mediterranean foods. No — lemonade is about as Mediterranean as you can get. First, lemons are one of the most common elements in every region of the Mediterranean. Preserved lemons in North Africa, Moroccan Lemon and Olive Chicken, Limoncello in Italy and avgolemono soup in Greece.  You’ll find lemons everywhere. Lemons rival olives, garlic, and dates to be THE signature food of the Mediterranean.  

The Home of Lemonade

Second, and most importantly for today’s post, the Mediterranean is lemonade’s birthplace.  It’s pretty darn near certain that the first lemonade originated in there. We can’t be 100% sure of course, because lemonade is so OLD. How old — the first written recipes for lemonade come down to us from the ancient Egyptians. According to Max Miller at Tasting History, the earliest recorded recipe for  lemonade used dates as a sweetener. He even tells of an early version of powdered lemonade made by the Egyptians.

[ As an aside — if you’ve never watched Max’s channel, I urge to do give it a try. It is, for a foodie, one of the most in interesting channels on YouTube. In his lemonade video, he shares a Frech recipe from the 1650’s. Not exactly what I’m sharing today, but a fair amount of similarities]

Lemonade-Lemons

At its heart, lemonade is a fairly simple drink. It is a combination of lemon juice, sweetener, and water. Because it is essentially a simple drink, there are many ways to get a glass of lemonade. You can buy a premade lemonade at the store. There are several decent brands, and several that are shall we say, not so good. When I was a kid, we would call the not so good lemonades “bug juice.” The best ones have a very simple ingredients list — water, sugar, and lemon juice. But finding high fructose corn syrup in some of the national brands shouldn’t surprise you.

You could also buy a powdered mix, and just add your own water. But a look at the ingredient labels of several popular mixes may make you pause.  You can find ingredients such as sodium acid pyrophosphate (linked to osteoporosis  and immune system concerns), and acesulfame potassium (linked to problems with blood sugar control, and disruption of metabolic process).

Homemade Lemonade is the Best

But the best way to get a great lemonade is to make it yourself. It is not a difficult process. If you have any experience making a simple syrup, your most of the way there. And even if you don’t have that experience, why not learn now and have the best glass of lemonade you’ve ever tried!

My recipe involves making a lemony simple syrup, adding lemon juice to the syrup, and then adding water. The ‘adding water’ part is the most variable part of the whole process. That is — add as much or as little as you like for your right balance of sweetness and tartness. For me, I find I like 14 oz of water for every 8 oz of syrup/lemon juice mix.  

Lemonade-Lemons

Making Simple Syrup

To make the simple syrup, start with equal parts, by volume, of water and sugar. In this case 1 1/2 cups. For homemade lemonade, I also 3 to 4 strips of lemon peel. To get these, I use a vegetable peeler take strips of just the yellow part of the peel (no white pith). Start by putting the water and lemon strips in a sauce pan over medium high heat.  

Lemonade-Temp

At this point, many recipes tell you that to make simple syrup, you need to boil the water first before adding the sugar. I don’t find that necessary, the water needs merely be heated before adding the sugar. Hot water makes it easier for the sugar to dissolve into the water to make a solution, but boiling is not essential. The fact is, a cup and a half of sugar will dissolve into a cup and a half of water no matter the temperature. It will take much longer and require much more stirring if cold or at room temperature. Hot water speeds the process.  

But how hot? Recipe writers (myself included) are always looking for a way to give the reader the easiest, clearest instructions. If I tell you “hot” water, how hot is hot? If I tell you 150oF water, then I assume you have a thermometer (you do, don’t you?). But if you don’t, then maybe you’re lost. But if I tell you boiling water, then it is easy to see when the water boils, and no extra tools or guessing is needed.  

Hot Enough

But in reality, somewhere between about 150oF and 180oF is all you need to easily dissolve sugar into water to make a simple syrup. Water in that range takes less time to heat up, and less time to cool down, so it creates a slight time advantage for you. You also aren’t losing some of your water to steam, so your ratios stay right on. How do you know when you are in that range? Without a thermometer, it is a bit of guess work, but precision ISN’T required.

When the top of the water no longer looks ‘still’ and the earliest whips of steam are starting to show, you are in the range. It won’t be a full rolling boil, of course, but it will start to ‘shimmer’ a bit. Add your sugar, and whisk until all the sugar has been mixed into solution. When ready, the water will look clear, and almost glossy. The lemon strips in the water will give it a slightly yellow tint, and this is normal. Allow the lemon syrup to cool, and go ahead and juice the lemons

Juicing the Lemons

When juicing the lemons, try this trick to get more juice from them. Put two or three of the lemons in your microwave oven and zap them for 30 seconds on high power. When you take the lemons out of the microwave, they should be warm to the touch, but not hot.

Lemonade-Juiced

Once you remove them from the microwave, before  juicing them, take one more quick step.  Roll them on your counter top, applying firm pressure with the palm of your hand. Then cut and juice. The recipe calls for 1 1/2 cups of lemon juice. I typically get that much juice from 5 – 6 lemons, although that may vary depending on the size of your lemons.  Today it took me 5 1/2 lemons. Don’t worry though, I used the other half lemon making a chicken version of my souvlaki for dinner tonight.

When the lemon syrup is cooled, add the lemon juice and give it a good shake to combine. If you don’t want too much pulp, pour the juice through a strainer as you add it to the syrup. You end up with about a quart of this syurp/juice mixture, and I just put it in a quart mason jar. I call this mixture my lemonade ‘base’. Its more than just syrup at this point, but not yet homemade lemonade.  I also leave the strips of lemon peel in for good measure. Keeping the syurp/juice in a mason jar until I want some actual homemade lemonade is my way of saving some space in my refrigerator. There is no reason you can’t go ahead and make a pitcher of lemonade now if you’d like.  

Lemonade-Empty

When it comes to adding water, I like to use 14 oz of water for every 8 oz of lemonade syrup/juice mix. That is exactly the way I like it. Not to tart, not too sweet. Not to ‘lemony’ and not to watery. I played around with this ratio for several days until I got one I liked just right.  That ratio is 1 3/4 cups of water for every 1 cup of lemonade base.  

Getting The Homemade Lemonade Just To Your Liking

If you want to make a pitcher of homemade lemonade using all the base you’ve made, you would add seven cups of water and the base to a pitcher. But if you want it ‘more’ or ‘less’ something, go ahead and tweak the ratios. Not sweet enough? Add a few teaspoons more of sugar. Too lemony? Add more water.  

Go ahead and play with your ratios and get them where you like them. I can say pretty confidently that in the 3,000 years since the Egyptians first started mixing lemon juice, water and a sweetener, that the recipe has changed some.  

Speaking of changing, there are lots of ways to ‘jazz’ up lemonade that you can try as well. In the future, I will have a blog post focused on making some of the Mediterranean’s more traditional flavored lemonades. Herbs such as mint, lavender, basil, and rosemary are often used to infuse lemonades in the region. I recently had a fresh made glass of a lavender lemonade and it was wonderful. Much better than I expected. For now, feel free to pop a sprig or two of any of those herbs into your lemonade to add more flavor.  

Serving for a party? Go ahead and garnish up adding slices of fresh lemon to the juice, and some lemon wedges along the rims of glasses. And feel free to add a some of the herbs above as a garnish as well.  

Take a few moments and raise a glass of lemonade to celebrate National Lemonade Day. For good measure, go ahead an make your own homemade lemonade — it’s easier than you think and probably they best you’ll have. Either way, remember your joining a millennial old tradition of this fabulous Mediterranean beverage!

Homemade Lemonade

Is there anything more “summer” than a glass of homemade lemonade? No and a refreshing glass of lemonade is about as Mediterranean as you can get.
Prep Time20 mins
Course: Drinks
Cuisine: Mediterranean
Keyword: Lemon
Ingredients
  • 1 1/2 cups water for lemon syrup
  • 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups fresh squeezed lemon juice from 5 – 6 lemons
  • 7 cups water for lemonade

Instructions

Lemon Syrup

  • Using a vegetable peeler, peel 3 – 4 strips from a fresh, rinsed lemon
  • Put the lemon strips and 1 1/2 cups water in a medium sauce pan over low heat
  • Heat water until the surface just begins to shimmer and wisps of steam begin to form
  • Add 1 1/2 cups of sugar, and whisk briskly until sugar is completely resolved, about two minutes
  • Turn of heat, and set lemony syrup aside while you juice the lemons

Juice Lemons

  • Place half of your lemons in the microwave, and run on high heat for 30 seconds
  • Remove lemons, and roll on work surface, pressing down firmly
  • Cut each lemon in half and remove the juice using a lemon juicer. Reserve juice, and discard seeds
  • Repeat with remaining lemons, until you have 1 1/2 cups of fresh squeezed lemon juice

Make Lemonade Base

  • Pour lemony syrup and lemon juice into a quart mason jar and stir to combine
  • Set aside in the refrigerator until cold

Make Lemonade

  • When lemonade base is cold, pour into a 3 quart pitcher
  • Add 7 cups of water (or to taste) and stir to combine
  • Garnish with fresh lemon slices, plus several sprigs of herbs such as mint, lavender, rosemary or basil
  • Serve chilled

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