When life gives you lemons (or when you buy them from the store), there are actually lots of delicious things you can do with them. See shortbread lemon bars, for instance. Still, lemonade is a summer classic for good reason, and it’s not only worth making from scratch, but worth making right. It’s not hard, and you don’t need to make it complicated, but if you want a product that’s several steps up from the usual young entrepreneur’s lemonade stand offering, there are a few tips and tricks to master.
Choose Your Lemons Wisely
To find the juiciest lemons, you’ve gotta give them a little squeeze. At the store, pick through the lemons and give each one a gentle press between your fingers. Ideally, they’ll have some give to them, and their skins won’t be super-thick. (But avoid any that are too soft and squishy, as those are probably breaking down and not very tasty.) They should be heavy for their size, fragrant, free of dark spots, and colorful, not pale and washed-out, which is a sign of age. But if all you can find are lighter, rock-hard lemons, there’s a way to get them to give up more juice when you get home.
One other thing to consider first: organic produce is generally always the best bet, but this is especially true if you’re going to include whole lemon slices in your pitcher, which does look quite fetching. If you can only find waxed lemons, you’ll want to remove that coating by placing the lemons in a colander, bringing a kettle or medium saucepan full of water to a boil, and pouring that over the fruit (make sure most of the peel is exposed on each piece so the water reaches all of it). Use a stiff-bristled vegetable brush to scrub the softened wax from the lemons, then rinse them in cold water, working off any last bits of wax with your fingernails or the brush.
Juice Them Well
You can coax even stingy lemons into giving up more juice by warming them up, whether you soak them in hot water for a few minutes or microwave them for about 30 seconds. Then, roll them under the heel of your hand on the counter or table top, pressing down firmly and giving them a few back-and-forths. If you use lots of lemon juice (and/or lime, orange, or grapefruit juice), it’s not a bad idea to invest in a manual juicer—whether a hand-held press or a simple reamer—or even an inexpensive electric juicer. But you don’t need special tools, either.
While many people cut lemons in half around their middles, it’s better to cut them lengthwise, from pole to pole, so you expose more of the flesh. If you’re using your hands as juicers, be sure to really get in there; squeeze the lemons over a bowl or large glass measuring cup (which lets you see how much you’ve accumulated without needing to transfer it from another container), and work your fingers into the fibers, to break them down and release as much juice as possible. You can also use a fork to mangle the inside of the lemon—and if you don’t want to have to fish out seeds or errant pulp, place a mesh strainer over the bowl or measuring cup before you start squeezing. Don’t be shy, and you’ll have plenty of juice in no time. For basic lemonade, you’ll generally want 1 cup of lemon juice—which is what anywhere from 5-7 medium lemons should yield—per 1 quart of water, though it all depends on personal taste, and you can scale up at that ratio to make larger batches if need be.
The classic sweetener for lemonade is good old granulated sugar, which works well, but a slightly richer and more refined option that ensures there’s no undissolved sugar grit in the bottom of the pitcher is simple syrup. All you need to do to make it is mix a 1:1 ratio of sugar (granulated white is classic, but try brown or even coconut sugar for a slightly deeper flavor—and color), and shake them together in a tightly sealed jar until the sugar dissolves. You can also go the more traditional route and bring the mixture to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar, before letting it cool. The latter method may be better if you’re infusing your syrup with herbs or other ingredients, since the heat helps draw out their flavors.
If you prefer, you can also use other sweeteners, like agave syrup, honey, stevia, or even white grape juice. Since some of these options are sweeter than others, it’s always best to add a bit less than you think you’ll need, then keep adjusting and tasting until you reach your desired level of sweet-tart balance. Starting with 1/4 cup of liquid sweetener for a full 1-quart batch of lemonade should be safe, but tread more cautiously if you’re sensitive to sugar or using a more intense option like stevia or agave.
Jazz It Up
Here’s where you can get fancy! Basic lemonade is satisfying on an almost elemental level, especially on a sweltering day, but there’s nothing wrong with dressing it up for parties either. Try grilling your lemons before juicing them, or add one or more of these mix-ins to suit your mood:
Herbs and Aromatics
Virtually any fresh herb can add an intriguing flavor to lemonade, including rosemary, mint, basil, tarragon, hyssop, verbena, thyme, and lavender. You can gently muddle some fresh leaves into the lemonade, or you can steep the herbs in your simple syrup or other sweetener to infuse it with flavor before mixing it in. Save some fresh sprigs for garnish too. Similarly, you can try using other aromatic ingredients like fresh ginger, lemongrass, vanilla beans, pandan leaves, or even jalapeños if you like a bit of fire with your icy cold refreshments.
Pretty much any kind of juicy summer fruit marries well with lemonade; it’s a laid-back kind of drink like that. Try adding slices of peak-season peaches or other stone fruit, fresh berries, mango, pineapple, watermelon, or even cucumber. If you’d rather not have pieces of fruit floating around in your drink, blend it in; for a finer texture, you can strain it afterward, but you won’t need as much water if you use this method—so add that in last until the drink is thinned and diluted to your liking.
If you’re thirsty for an adult beverage, adding vodka or gin is a great tack to take with lemonade, but even brown liquors like bourbon can work (use it in conjunction with mint for a julep-inspired drink). Try spiking it with Champagne, tequila, limoncello, or sweet tea vodka too, even peach Schnapps if you’re a fan, and don’t forget the classic shandy: bubbly beer and lemonade.
This may seem obvious, but adding ice directly to the pitcher of lemonade will dilute it as it melts, so you’re better off just chilling it in the fridge and adding ice to your individual glasses. Alternatively, make the lemonade somewhat more intensely acidic and sweet than you want it to end up, and let the melting ice mellow it out a bit. You also have the option of making your ice add flavor, by freezing lemonade itself (or even fruit puree) into ice cube trays ahead of time.
And there you have it! You don’t need to spend quite as much time and energy on your perfect pitcher as Beyoncé did crafting her Lemonade, but some measure of care beyond simply grabbing a can of concentrate off the shelf will serve you well in the long run. Here are some delicious variations on the classic recipe that will keep your thirst quenched all summer.
A strawberry-basil syrup infuses this lemonade with tons of invigorating flavor and bright, bold color. You can use the same template with other fruits and herbs too—and feel free to add a dash of alcohol for a perfect picnic or backyard barbecue cocktail. Get our Strawberry-Basil Lemonade recipe.
You can make any number of refreshing tea-lemonade hybrids, like matcha lemonade or Earl Grey lemonade, but the Arnold Palmer is the original summertime tea-and-lemon pairing. Using from-scratch lemonade and freshly made iced tea elevates it to properly iconic status. Get our Arnold Palmer recipe.
Many commercial pink lemonades are super sweet and tinted with artificial dye, but our all-natural (and much tastier) version uses a raspberry-infused simple syrup to lightly color and flavor the lemonade. Get our Pink Lemonade recipe.
This lemonade is extra zesty thanks to mint and ginger, but still incredibly simple to make. Get the recipe.
Simmer some fresh sliced peaches with water and sugar, then blend them, strain them, and stir them into your fresh lemon juice, for an easy drink that’s fully infused with summer flavor. Get the recipe.
Few fruits are as refreshing as watermelon, so adding it to lemonade is obviously a perfect choice. While the recipe calls for frozen lemonade, make it fresh if you have the time (and inclination). The vodka is totally optional, but it’s an old, dear friend to watermelon and lemonade both. Get the recipe.
This is a pretty, sophisticated lemonade, all decked out with fresh thyme, blackberries, and vanilla. It’s on the tart side, but you can always add a little more sweetener if you like. Get the recipe.
Rosemary is often thought of as a fall and winter herb, but it shines in the summer too, and makes a great partner to lemonade. Try a sparkling honey-sweetened version of this drink if you’re partial to bees and bubbles, but this basic, subtly flavored pitcher will get you through even the most scorching months. Get the recipe.