“So what’s all this garnishing nonsense,” you ask. Ahhh. I’ve been expecting and slightly dreading that question. You’re right of course, it’s something we need to talk about. Now first up I should point out that a) I’m not the most accomplished garnisher and b) I’m a bit opinionated on the subject (no surprise, right?) but if you want my twist on it read on and, as always, I’ll try to reward your patience with a handy shortcut. Oh, you’re still here? Great.
First of all let’s get one thing straight. Garnish and presentation are two different things which shouldn’t be confused. When a fancy-ass cocktail bar serves your drink in a tin can wrapped in brown paper and string that’s presentation (or more likely a gimmick to justify their eye-watering prices). When a bartender serves you a Negroni without its proper garnish – a twist, swathe or slice of orange – that’s a crime against civilisation.
The garnish, while by all means attractive, must primarily be functional. By which I mean it should add something to the flavour profile of a drink. In the example above I’ve garnished my Dutch East Indies Company themed drink with a sprinkling of spices and an orange and clove “Admiral’s hat”. If it looks nice that’s just a happy bonus – each of those ingredients is primarily there to be tasted and or smelled (smell making a big contribution to perceived taste). By far the most common garnish, and the only one we’ll deal with today, is some kind of citrus fruit; in mixed drinks usually a slice or wedge and in cocktails more often a thin slice of peel. Be assured that none of this is just for show. After all, surely everyone agrees that a gin and tonic without a slice of citrus (usually lemon but these days it could just as easily be lime, grapefruit or even yuzu) just doesn’t taste right? But while a slice is nice, the peel is the real deal. The peel of fresh citrus fruit is packed with flavourful oils and the act of cutting those and twisting them releases a surprising amount of flavour that can absolutely change the taste of a drink without watering it down. For maximum effect cut the peel right above the finished drink but be aware that this can give too much oil. For example if you want to add a lemon twist in a delicate drink like a Martini cut your spiral away from the glass or it will overpower it. Those lovely fragrant oils reside on the outermost layer of the peel (the bumpier the surface the better) but the white layer beneath is bitter so try to avoid taking the pith [snare, cymbal]. In general you want as thin a slice as possible and, for those without chef level knife skills, the humble potato peeler is the easiest way to achieve this.
Using a knife and going a just little bit into the pith is also fine and gives a more forgiving swathe to work with. Going deep into the pith or as far as the flesh are definitely no-no’s.
Once you have your swathe of citrus there are no more rules; trim it, twist it, shape it, skewer it, flame it. Whatever. It’s up to you. Be creative and be assured you’ll quickly get better with practice. All you need is a chopping board and a small sharp knife. I like the one I found in a kitchen supplier which has a full sized grip but a very small sharp blade. It probably has some special cheffy purpose that I’m ignorant of but it’s absolutely ideal for garnishing. If you’d like to make very long thin citrus ribbons you could also invest in an inexpensive tool called a channel knife which is easy to use and positively sprays out citrus oil.
In my opinion (oh, yes, here we go), there is a prevailing tendency to over-garnish (and over-present) these days. My theory for this follows: It’s quite hard to make a decent margin on cocktails compared to beer or wine so good cocktails tend to have a premium price. And if you have a premium price you need to make sure the customer doesn’t have a “Damn, I could just make this myself at home!” moment. Fancy garnishing has a role to play in preventing that idea getting traction (along with esoteric liqueurs and bitters). Well, it’s either that or have another rant at the hipsters and that’s getting a bit old. If you promise not to laugh at my hypocrisy considering my lead picture (cut me some slack – I’m trying to run a blog here and a bit of visual impact does help) I’d advocate keeping things relatively simple and restrained on the garnish front. Except with Tiki. Obviously.
There are few hard and fast rules in garnishland and opinions do vary. For example, I never garnish a Daiquiri – although plenty of people do. A Daiquiri already tastes of fresh lime – at least it f***ing better – so what is the point of a lime wedge on the edge? Exactly. A whisky Old Fashioned on the other hand is quite unfinished without the thin layer of intense orange oil that coats its surface. Ignore garnishing at your peril. Yes, we’ve only covered citrus this time but we’ll get to some other ideas later.
But hang on, did I offer you a shortcut through the garnishing maze? I think I might have:
Dehydrated citrus wheels: garnishing lite.
The problem with citrus garnishes are that they really can’t be prepared in advance as citrus peel loses it zing amazingly quickly after being separated from the fruit. And that sucks if you’re having a cocktail party. While they’re not the exactly the same thing as a fresh twist, dehydrated citrus wheels are a pretty acceptable substitute that cover much of the same ground. Carefully dried citrus becomes very sweet, very strong and, better yet, very stable, yet when remoisturised (yes, in a drink) releases its essence with aplomb. And you can chew on them. You can buy a dehydrator which will do the job of sucking the moisture out of your citrus wheels over the course of several hours. But that’s not how we roll is it? Especially as we already have a perfectly good dehydrator in our kitchen. Non-cocktailiens call it an “oven”. If you have an oven with a low enough setting – and preferably a fan – you’re sorted. The process is only a few minutes work, even if it takes all day:
Before breakfast slice some citrus of your choice as thinly as you can (about 1-2mm) with a very sharp knife. Spread them out evenly on a drying rack with a tray beneath to catch any drips. Set your oven on the fan setting and about 50ºC or thereabouts and slam in the fruit. Gently. Turn each slice over around lunch time – or don’t, it probably doesn’t matter that much. By early evening you should have some nice dehydrated fruit wheels that are completely dry to the touch but not “cooked”. Taste one. Wow – right? To be honest the timing is a bit oven-dependent so take note of the required time and temperature it takes to achieve total dryness the first time you try this and use those settings in future. That way you can run a batch overnight or while you’re at work once you have those timings down. A nice bonus is that your kitchen will smell amazing.
If properly dried and stored in a cool dry place in a zip-loc bag they are fine for about a month. Thereafter they start to brown a bit and – while very probably still safe – start to look a bit gnarly. I prefer to chuck those I haven’t used after a week or two in the freezer. That way you always have some handy and they only take seconds to defrost at room temperature.
As you can see I’ve used limes in these pictures but in my experience any citrus fruit dries at the same rate if sliced to the same thickness so you can even dry different fruits at the same time. Use them however you see fit – but they do float quite nicely.