It has taken me far too long to discover how amazing — and how astoundingly easy — it is to make my own limoncello. I had this hazy idea that limoncello must be a closely guarded secret kept by a sect of weathered Italian grandfathers with wooly driving caps and secretive, knowing smiles. Just me? Well, it turns out all you need to make truly incredible limoncello are some good lemons, a bottle of stiff vodka, and just a little patience.
Limoncello is smooth and sweet with an intense lemon flavor. It can be sipped on its own, mixed into sparkling water, or shaken into cocktails. Limoncello can range from very sweet to super tart and citrusy — as the maker of the limoncello, that's something that you get to decide. Lucky you.
To make it, we're simply infusing lemon peels into vodka. No distilling or secret ingredients required. After letting the peels and vodka mingle for anywhere from a few days to a month, it's strained, mixed with sugar syrup, chilled — and just like that, we have the limoncello that many of us fell in love with on our first sip years ago.
What Alcohol to Use?
If you have the option, 100 proof vodka or even higher-proof grain alcohol is the very best to use for making limoncello. This will extract more and better lemon flavor from the peels, and makes a smoother, less cloying limoncello.
This said, 80 proof vodka is also fine to use — it's also easier to find and less expensive than 100 proof. If you use 80 proof vodka, you won't need to add as much sugar syrup after infusing the vodka.
What Lemons to Use?
Standard lemons are just fine for making limoncello, though I do recommend buying organic lemons. Since non-organic lemons are usually coated with wax, you'll get a better extraction from organic lemons. Plus, alcohol will pull everything from those peels, including any pesticides or insecticides used on the lemons.
If you have access to them, Meyer lemons make a superb limoncello. You can also branch out into other citrus fruits like grapefruits, oranges, and tangerines.
We're only using the lemon peels for this project. I've found it easiest to remove the peels with a vegetable peeler, but you can also use a microplane or a zester. Just try to get the skin alone and as little pith as possible. With the leftover lemons, you can make a batch of lemonade!
How Long to Infuse?
Infuse your lemon peels and vodka for at least 4 days or up to a month. Most of the lemon flavor is extracted in those first few days, but you'll also get a stronger, bolder flavor the longer you let it sit.
How Much Sugar?
Start with a simple syrup made of 1 cup of sugar dissolved in 1 cup of water — start here whether you used 100 proof or 80 proof vodka. Add this to the infused vodka, taste, and add more simple syrup to taste.
You can play with the ratios of water to sugar here, all the way up to 4 cups of water with 4 cups of sugar and anything in between. More water will dilute the alcohol base, making a less alcoholic, milder, and smoother-sipping liqueur. More sugar will make a sweeter limoncello.
Is It Safe?
Absolutely! The alcohol prevents any mold or other bacteria from growing on the fruit. Once strained, the limoncello can be kept in the freezer for at least a year, and likely much longer. If your limoncello is over a year old, discard it if it tastes off or you see any mold growing in the bottle.
Sources for Bottling Supplies
Use a vegetable peeler to remove the peels from all the lemons. Try to remove only the outer yellow skin and as little of the pith as possible.
How To Make Limoncello
Makes roughly 4 cups
What You Need
10 organic lemons, washed and dried
1 750-ml bottle vodka (100-proof preferred, or 80-proof)
1 to 4 cups sugar, to taste
Vegetable peeler (or microplane or zester)
1 quart jar or other similar-sized container with a lid
Large coffee filter
4-cup measuring cup
2 clean16-ounce bottles or several bottles equalling similar volume
Peel the lemons: Use a vegetable peeler to remove the peels from all the lemons. Try to remove only the outer yellow skin and as little of the pith as possible. Trim away any large pieces of pith with a paring knife, but don't worry about trimming every last scrap.
Cover the peels with vodka: Transfer the lemon peels to a 1-quart jar and cover with vodka. Screw on the lid.
Infuse the vodka: Let the vodka and lemon peels infuse somewhere out of the way and out of direct sunlight for at least 4 days or as long as a month. The longer you let the vodka infuse, the more lemony your limoncello.
Strain the vodka: Line a strainer with a large coffee filter and set it over a 4-cup measuring cup. Strain the infused vodka through the filter. You may need to stir the vodka in the strainer if the flow stops.
Prepare sugar syrup: Prepare a sugar syrup of at least 1 cup of water and 1 cup of sugar — bring the water to a simmer and stir in the sugar to dissolve; allow to cool.
→ You can play with the ratios of water to sugar. Start with 1 cup of water and 1 cup of sugar, taste the limoncello, and add additional sugar syrup gradually until you reach a flavor you like — up to 4 cups of water with 4 cups of sugar. More water will dilute the alcohol base, making a less alcoholic, milder, and smoother-sipping liqueur. More sugar will make a sweeter limoncello.
Mix the sugar syrup with the infused vodka: Pour the sugar syrup into the infused vodka. Stir gently to mix. Taste and add additional sugar syrup if desired (see above).
Bottle the limoncello: Insert the funnel in the neck of one of the bottles and fill with limoncello. Repeat with remaining bottles.
Chill and store: Chill the limoncello in the fridge or freezer for at least 4 hours before drinking. Limoncello can be kept in the fridge for up to a month or the freezer for up to a year (and often much longer!).
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(Image credits: Emma Christensen)