Ah, limoncello, sweet nectar of the Gods. I remember first tasting limoncello as a young girl around my Italian relatives. And of course, when you're young and your Italian relatives give you a taste of wine or liqueur, it's a healthy but measured sip given (usually by your Italian uncles) under the watchful eye of your Mom. But sipping limoncello, wine, or any other 'cello is as much a cultural thing in an Italian household (or in my case Italian-American household) as eating the food is, or sharing the same kitchen towel around the dinner table to wipe your mouth (sorry, I know this grosses some people out a bit), and lingering after dinner over some desserts and lively conversation.
What is Limoncello?
Limoncello, Arancello (orange), Limecello, Pummellocello, 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 Amalfi coast region, where lemons grow the size of grapefruits in America, 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 subtle taste, while limoncello and arancello are still my favorites - bursting with fresh citrus flavors.
Most everywhere you travel in southern Italy, people and restaurants will serve you limoncello after a delicious meal, to continue the hospitality and prepare your stomach for dessert. 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 on your own! If you've visited southern Italy, chances are you've had limoncello. And if you are planning to visit, be sure to bookmark this page for future reference because you're going to want the recipe for when you return!
How to Make 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.)
There are 3 basic steps to making limoncello/arancello:
- Infusing the alcohol
- Filtering the infused alcohol
- Combining the alcohol with simple syrup
What you'll need:
750 ml bottle of Alcohol - The best limoncello is made with grain alcohol, but if you're like me (in the U.S.) and this is difficult to buy, use an inexpensive non-potato vodka, like Svedka, Smirnoff or the like. For large batches using liter bottles, be sure to adjust the ratio of simple syrup accordingly.
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.
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. Alcohol will be bright lemony yellow in color.
Pour alcohol through 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 should be slightly cloudy.
For Spiced Arancello: Simply add one whole clove, one whole cardamom pod, and one whole cinnamon stick in each bottle of Arancello.
And that's it. Bottle, chill and enjoy!
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 tags for gift-giving. I used my photos of lemons and oranges from Italy to make tags and channeled my inner Martha Stewart one year with thin slices of dried lemons and oranges! :-)
Why Make Your Own?
Making limoncello is so easy, and it makes lovely 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 lovely concoction, makes it a no-brainer to start brewing right now. Because the holidays are right around the corner!
Traditionally, limoncello is served in tiny glasses for sipping. You can find these 'limonello glasses' in any home and kitchen store.
But to shake things up a bit, try using it in your favorite Martini recipes, or add seltzer for a refreshing Lemon Fizz.