Best lemonade recipe? Ever? That's a tall order—about as tall as a towering, icy pitcher full of perfectly tart, sweet, lemony...we digress. Basically, what we're trying to say is that we spent lots of (extra-sticky) time testing out different methods of making lemonade, to find the absolute best.
The secret, it turns out, is lemon-sugar. Also known around these parts as Cheaters' Oleo Saccharum. The real thing—oleo saccharum proper—has you muddle together citrus peels and sugar for several hours until the mixture turns to liquid syrup. Our Cheaters' version is a little quicker: you rub lots of strips of lemon zest directly into granulated sugar, and let it all hang out for an hour. By the time you make your simple syrup with the sugar and zest, the sugar's infused with an intensely bright flavor that'll make your lemonade that much more lemony. And the pinch of kosher salt you'll add toward the end? Icing on the...pitcher.
A few notes, as indicated by asterisks below:
*Use a vegetable peeler to get the lemon’s zest in long strips. The longer, the better—as in, the easier to pluck out of simple syrup, later. Avoid pressing too hard with the peeler; you’re looking for strips of the golden yellow peel, but want to avoid the bitter white stuff below it, which can make your simple syrup taste bitter.
**Our preferred method for getting the most juice out of a fresh lemon? Roll each whole lemon a few times on the countertop before halving. —Ella Quittner
1 hour 30 minutes
about 7 cups
Zest of 4 lemons (preferably organic), peeled in long strips*
5 1/2 cups
large pinch kosher salt
freshly squeezed lemon juice (seeds removed), from about 5 large lemons**
Combine the lemon zest strips and sugar in a bowl, using your fingers to rub the sugar into the peels for a couple of minutes. Cover and let sit for an hour.
Add 1 cup water to a saucepan. Bring to a simmer, then turn off the heat and immediately add the sugar and lemon zest, plus a large pinch of kosher salt. Stir until the sugar and salt has dissolved. Let cool to room temperature. (You can stick it in the fridge to expedite, if you like, but letting it steep a full 30 minutes will make it more lemony.)
Once the simple syrup is at room temperature, set a small fine mesh sieve over a large pitcher, and pour through the sieve to remove the strips of zest. Press on the strips of zest to get every last drop through! To the pitcher, add the lemon juice, and stir. Add the remaining 4 1/2 cups of water, and stir again. Serve over ice.
Ella Quittner is a contributing writer and the Absolute Best Tests columnist at Food52. She covers food, travel, wellness, lifestyle, home, novelty snacks, and internet-famous sandwiches. You can follow her on Instagram @equittner, or Twitter at @ellaquittner. She also develops recipes for Food52, and has a soft spot for all pasta, anything spicy, and salty chocolate things.