Ah, limoncello, sweet nectar of the Gods. I remember first tasting limoncello as a young girl at family dinners. And of course, when you're young and your Italian uncles give you a taste of wine or liqueur, it's usually a healthy sip given under the watchful eye of your Mom.
Sipping wine, limoncello, or any other 'cello is as much a cultural thing in an Italian household (or in my case Italian-American household) as eating Italian food, or sharing the same kitchen towel around the dinner table to wipe your mouth (sorry, I know how this sounds), and lingering after dinner over desserts, fruits, nuts, and lively conversation. When I first went looking for an Italian limoncello recipe, I found dozens, some with added cream or sugar. But eventually I worked out my own tried and true recipe that I'm sharing with you!
What is Limoncello?
First, in case you may be unfamiliar with it, what exactly is limoncello? Limoncello, arancello (orange), limecello, pummellocello (pummelo), grapefruitcello or any other 'cello is the sweet liqueur made from the oil essence of citrus fruit skins generally grown in the Mediterranean regions of Italy. Limoncello is ubiquitous in southern Italy and the Amalfi coast region, where lemons grow the size of grapefruits, the fruit is fresh and juicy, and the oily skins make the perfect limoncello. I've not tried limecello or grapefruitcello, but pummellocello has a soft oh-so-subtle taste, while limoncello and arancello are still my favorites - bursting with fresh citrus flavors.
Most everywhere you travel throughout Italy - especially southern Italy where they grow lemons the size of footballs - restaurants will serve you limoncello after a delicious meal, to continue the hospitality. Restaurants will generally offer it to patrons gratis (for free) since it's typically made in-house. You'll hear limoncello referred to as a digestivo, something to sip and savor while your meal digests. It's the perfect summertime drink - like sunshine in a glass - and it's super easy to make limoncello on your own! If you've visited Naples, Sorrento, Capri, or the Amalfi Coast, chances are you've already had it. And if you are planning to visit, bookmark this authentic limoncello recipe for future reference because you're going to want to learn to make it for when you're dreaming of Italy when you get home!
How to Make Authentic Limoncello
I've made my own limoncello and arancello for years, trying several recipes and tweaking here and there. But the following is my go-to recipe which has yielded the best results to date. (Keep in mind that the end results may vary to some degree depending on: the kind of sugar you use in the simple syrup, the kind of vodka or grain alcohol used, and the freshness of the lemons.)
To make Spiced Arancello: Simply add one whole clove, one whole cardamom pod, and one whole cinnamon stick in each bottle of Arancello. That's it. Bottle, chill and enjoy!
3 Easy Steps
There are 3 Easy Steps to making homemade limoncello or arancello:
- Infusing the alcohol
- Filtering the infused alcohol
- Combining the alcohol with simple syrup
What you'll need
750 ml bottle of Alcohol - For large batches using liter bottles, be sure to adjust the ratio of simple syrup accordingly. The best limoncello is made with grain alcohol, but if you're like me (in the US) where it's not readily available to buy, use an inexpensive non-potato vodka, like Svedka, Smirnoff or the like. Stay away from high-end vodkas - they're a waste of money when making homemade limoncello!
15 Lemons (navel or blood oranges for arancello) - Fresh, organic, if possible. It's a lot of lemons but you'll get the best amount of infusion from this amount of lemons/oranges.
White sugar (avoid using natural sugars as they impart a caramel-y taste to the batch)
Clean bottles for bottling
Step 1: Infuse the Alcohol
- With a potato or veggie peeler, lightly peel the skin from the lemons. Avoid digging too deep and peeling the white pith under the skin, trying only for the outer lemon skin.
- Add 1 liter of alcohol to lemon skins in glass container. Cover with wrap or airtight lid, and let sit in a cool place for at least 4 weeks. Patience, grasshopper. The longer it steeps, the better it'll taste!
TIP: What to do with all the peeled lemons when you're done? Juice them, pour the juice into ice cube trays, and freeze. Then bag up the frozen cubes and you've got fresh lemon juice for all your recipes!
Step 2: Make a Simple Syrup
- For every 750 ml of alcohol, dissolve 1 1/2 cups of white sugar in 2 1/2 cups of water, heating the mixture until the sugar dissolves completely. Make enough simple syrup for the amount of alcohol you are making. Set aside and cool.
NOTE: I've seen the ratio of sugar/water vary in several recipes, but I have found this ratio works best. Again, if you're making larger batches for gifts, adjust the simple syrup recipe accordingly.
Step 3: Filtration
- At the end of 4 weeks, remove the skins from the alcohol with a strainer and discard. The alcohol will be bright lemony yellow in color.
- Pour alcohol through a cheesecloth lined sieve into another large glass container. Strain once or twice to remove smaller bits of lemon.
- Combine the infused alcohol with the cooled simple syrup. Mixture will turn slightly cloudy.
TIP: Limoncello Bottles
Bottles - Import stores like Pier 1 or World Market sell decorative glass bottles for bottling and gift-giving. Clean them well in hot water and drain thoroughly before bottling.
Packaging - Get creative with gift tags. One year I used my photos of lemons from Italy to make tags, channeled my inner-Martha Stewart and air-dried thin slices of dried lemons and oranges! That's the last time I'll ever do that but it was pretty. :-)
Why You Should Make Your Own Limoncello
Making limoncello is easy, and it makes great gifts, especially for friends and family who love Italy and Italian food. By comparison, a 750ml bottle of limoncello at the liquor store costs $25 or much more. The ease in which you can make - and drink - this yummy concoction makes it a no-brainer to start brewing right now. The holidays are right around the corner!
Traditionally, limoncello is served in tiny limoncello glasses for sipping. You can find these glasses in any home and kitchen store.
To shake things up a bit, use your limoncello in your favorite Martini recipes, or add seltzer for a refreshing Lemon Fizz.