How to Make Limoncello: Sweet, lemon-flavored Italian liqueur
Posted by MydeaMedia
Limoncello is a sweet, lemon-flavored Italian liqueur. Unlike many liqueurs, it's very easy to make at home, requiring only the most basic of ingredients and tools. Doing so is easy but rewarding--from a scientific perspective for the chemistry involved in the process, and from a culinary perspective for the simple joy of drinking something you made from scratch.
One of the interesting things about limoncello is that it isn't sour at all (if it's made properly). This is because there's no lemon juice in it. The lemon flavor comes from lemon zest--the very outside of the lemon peel, where the essential oils are most concentrated.
In its native Italy, limoncello is most frequently taken cold, as a digestif (an after-dinner drink). I find it especially refreshing early in the evening on a hot day, but it's enjoyable any time you like.
This is basically a long-form of the Limoncello recipe that omits no details or explanations. If you plan to make Limoncello at home and have never tried it before, you should read this very closely.
Step One: Cut a hole in the box. (Just kidding.) The first step is actually to select your lemons. Whenever possible, select organic lemons because it’s actually the skin you use in making Limoncello and that’s also where all the pesticide is. Organic lemons also aren’t waxed, which is more crap that ends up in your liquor. Try to choose thick-skinned lemons with smooth skin. The reason for this is that it’s a heck of a lot easier to zest a lemon with smooth skin. And it kind of goes without saying that you should pick ones that don’t have stickers on them if possible.
Step Two: Wash the lemons. You’ll need to do this whether or not they are organic but if they aren’t organic it’s more of an ordeal. You need to scrub them under very warm water with a vegetable brush or some other plastic scrubber. Remove all stickers or stamps and as much of the wax as possible. Then dry them with a paper towel.
Step Three: Zest the lemons. Doing this step quickly and doing it well requires a Microplane Zester because anything else just doesn’t work in my experience. I like to put a cutting board or a large piece of aluminum foil down to catch all the zest. Then you just use the zester to remove a thin layer of zest from the whole lemon. If you get even a little bit of the white pith just below the zest, it will make your Limoncello bitter. So don’t take chances, if the lemon is bumpy and you can’t get all the zest without hitting the pith elsewhere, let it go. The lemon in the picture on the left has been zested. Notice how it is still yellow because I just removed the outer skin without touching the pith anywhere. This step is all about quality over quantity. My recipe calls for 2 more lemons than what you typically see because it is so important not to worry about not having enough zest here and digging into the lemon for more is not allowed. This step used to take me nearly two hours when I used other types of zesters or peelers but with the Microplane I can zest all 17 lemons in about half an hour.
Step Four: Filter the liquor. This should actually be done simultaneously with the zesting to save time. I use a Brita pitcher that I bought for this purpose but any similar water filtration pitcher will do. I pour one bottle in, let it filter, pour it into a regular clean pitcher, then back in the top and I repeat the filtration four times for each bottle of liquor. I’m still testing how worthwhile this is and how many filtrations are optimal but four is my current standard. I filter regardless of what kind of liquor I use.
Speaking of that, whenever possible I use grain alcohol for authenticity. It’s difficult to get because many states don’t allow it to be sold. I’ve found though that vodka has a flavor of its own that is imparted to the Limoncello and I’m not a big fan of that. However, it is much better than nothing so the next best thing is 100 proof, mid-grade Vodka. If you must, use the 80 proof but more alcohol is better for making Limoncello to a certain point. I have found 151 proof grain alcohol to be much easier to take in a young final product than the 190 proof grain alcohol. You need the patience of Job to use that stuff.
Step Five: Combine the zest and the filtered liquor into a very clean one gallon glass jar and screw the lid on tight. If the lid isn’t tight enough, put a piece of plastic wrap on the top before screwing on the lid. You can use any glass jar of sufficient size and I have different ones for different purposes. The one on the left in the image is a stylish but smaller jar that I use for test batches that are half of a normal batch. I got it and others like it at Home Goods. The one on the right that’s full of Limoncello is a basic one that holds an entire batch. I got it at Wal-Mart for a couple bucks. I’ve also found good jars at Marshall’s and online. Put a label on the jar that tells you at least the date of when you made it, if not other details about how you made it. I use a label maker to number my batches and track in an Excel sheet what I do differently each time but that’s probably more anal than most people need to be.
Step Six: Wait. I tend to keep each batch in my kitchen for the first week to ten days and I shake it up about four times during that initial period. Some people say that isn’t necessary but I like to do it. After that I put it in my basement because of the “out of sight, out of mind” factor. It’s easier to wait if you don’t see it sitting there all the time. I let the mixture sit and infuse for a minimum of 45 days, longer if I can stand it or if I forget about it. This is where all of the lemon flavor comes from so don’t short-change yourself here. If you absolutely must have it sooner, reduce wait times from later steps first.
Step Seven: Add the simple syrup. My standard recipe is to bring 5 cups of water just to a boil and then remove it from the heat and stir in 3.5 cups of white sugar. You then let it sit until it comes down to room temperature. I use filtered water for this and I now always use regular white sugar. I’ve tried other types of sugar but raw sugars tend to have subtle flavors of their own (most notably molasses) that will show up in the final product. If that sounds ok to you, give it a whirl, but I didn’t like it. I’ve also heard that you should not stir the sugar but rather let the low boil mix the two instead. I’ve tried it both ways and never noticed a difference though. Once the simple syrup cools down you can just add it to the lemon/liquor infusion, screw the lid back on and shake the jar. Mark on the label the date you mixed the infusion with the simple syrup.
Step Eight: Wait some more. I now put the mixture back in the basement and wait for at least another 45 days. The longer the mixture rests, the smoother the flavor of the final product. I am convinced of this fact. Though I’ll leave this step in as the official recipe, in practice I usually filter and then let it sit longer in the bottle.
Step Nine: Filter the Limoncello. This is one of the most important steps and by far the most laborious. My process is to filter less than some people recommend but I’ve found that it’s enough to get the job done and this is one job you’ll want to keep as short as possible. However, you should never skip it. I’ve skipped the filtration and the result resembles dirty bath water more than Limoncello. The filtration actually gives it the color, clarity and flavor you expect from Limoncello.
My first filtering pass is with a flat-bottom permanent coffee filter that you can buy at the grocery store. I put it right in the funnel and the funnel in the pitcher or whatever container I’m using. Then I ladel the Limoncello out of the storage jar and through the filter. This first pass removes all of the zest and other large debris. Then comes the tough part. I take flat-bottom disposable coffee filters, the ones with the fluted edging, and put them inside the permanent filter. This is basically double-filtering and I repeat this step a second time. Then on the last pass I just put it through the permanent filter by itself just in case any debris or zest gets back in there during the filtration process. So, that makes two filtrations with just the permanent filter and two filtrations with the permanent plus disposable filters.
When filtering, you want to be patient and preserve as much of the liquid as possible but there will come a point when it looks like there’s more liquid at the bottom but no more liquid is dripping through. Do NOT try to salvage that liquid. Throw it away along with the filter (or wash the filter) because that stuff is exactly what you’re filtering in the first place.
Step Ten: Bottle the Limoncello. On the last filtration, I funnel the liquid directly into whatever bottles I’m using. Because I’m anal about this, I wash, dry and then sterilize the bottles first. You can sterilize them by putting aluminum foil over the top and baking them in the oven at 350 degrees for an hour. Then just don’t take off the aluminum foil until they are ready for use. This isn’t really necessary for Limoncello (it is for beer) but it makes me feel like the bottles are clean enough. I use either the bottles the liquor came in (if it’s for my own use) or some 500ml bottles with swing caps (if I want to give bottles away). You can find any kind of bottle you want by searching for glassware or brewing supplies on Google. I’ve also heard that if you give it away you should put on a label saying that it is a gift and not intended for resale to pacify the ATF guys. I’ve yet to give much away outside of the family so it hasn’t been an issue for me. At the left are two swing top examples, the one on the left I bought online and it holds 500ml of liquor. The one on the right I got at a Crate & Barrel outlet store and it holds about 250ml of liquor. They both cost around $2.50-$3 each. If I’m bottling Limoncello for my own use, I usually just clean and use the bottles that the vodka/everclear originally came in.
You’re done! A few bonus tips for you though. In my experience the Limoncello mellows a lot in the first week. I realize this is torture but if you’re not in a tremendous hurry, I recommend doing the first tasting a week or so after bottling. The longer Limoncello sits, the smoother it gets. This is more important if you’re making it with grain alcohol than vodka but it still holds true. I taste a given batch at one week, six months and one year of age. Never has a batch been around longer than that or I’d taste it at later intervals as well. Enjoy!