Tricks of the Muddling Trade

A muddler with mint and limes and rum in the background.
Muddling requires more precision and finesse than some might imagine. Photo via Flickr/Didriks.

Muddling seems like a pretty straightforward endeavor. You combine your ingredients, smash them together with a tool, and then dump the contents into a cup. Easy enough, no? There’s an art to muddling, though, and the act requires more finesse than what you may presume. For example, the way you muddle herbs is different than the way you muddle citrus. And it’s easy to over-muddle, too, resulting in a cocktail that’s not living up to its taste – or visual impact – potential.

Muddling herbs

When muddling herbs, the goal is to release the essential oils and extract aroma in order to elevate your cocktail’s flavor profile.

“I take the rules of the kitchen to heart on this one,” says Nicole Lebedevitch, bar manager at Yvonne’s, a modern bar based in Boston that specializes in classic and playful cocktails. “When cutting herbs in a kitchen, you are looking to keep their beautiful green color, and get as little of that color on the cutting board as possible.”

Using a gentle hand preserves that color and keeps the flavors fresh and strong, she explains. Conversely, over muddling can result in sad-looking herbs and, more importantly, create a bitter taste. Ultimately, think of herbs as needing to be pressed gently into a mixing tin or service glass versus pulverized.

“That mojito with all of the black specks of mint is because you muddled it so hard, and with all of the ice in your shaker at the same time,” says Lebedevitch, who actually prefers to forego a muddler completely for her mojitos. “I press a few pieces of mint into the bottom of the glass I will be serving it in to get the oils onto the inside of the glass, and then I shake all of the ingredients with a good amount of mint. I then double-strain the cocktail over the freshly pressed mint in the glass. This will get you all of the flavor of the mint as well as the beautiful aromas.”

In short, over-muddling results in a bitter, unattractive drink with murky liquid and bits of pulverized herbs that get stuck in teeth and straws. Mint is a good example to talk about because of its delicacy and quickness to sour, which is why we focused on it here. Though some herbs can withstand a little more muddling, you should always handle herbs delicately and preferably with hands or a wooden tool versus metal or plastic. Practice by using different amounts of light force and then smelling, tasting and observing the herb’s reaction.

Muddling citrus

Citrus has thicker skin than sensitive herbs and therefore can use a little more muddling action. Like herbs, the goal is to extract both oils and aroma from the fruit.

“Citrus is a little more forgiving and allows the use of a metal or plastic muddle to help break down the fruit and release the juices without completely destroying it,” says Luis Mantilla, general manager and cocktail curator at Washington, D.C.’s CityBar DC. “You want to gently apply pressure and twist to release the essential oils and juice.”

Like herbs, over muddling citrus makes for an unattractive, bitter drink with unbalanced, unsavory flavors.

When working with citrus, Lebedevitch prefers to combine them with syrup and then muddle the two together. “This helps to get the sweet fruit flavors without extracting too much of the bitter pith or oils of the citrus fruit,” she explains.

Again, play with the amount of applied force you’re using in order to get a feel for how much pressure and muddling time you need for any given fruit. Practice and experimentation will improve your skillset and soon enough intuition and muscle memory will take over.

Alternative methods to extract flavor and aroma

We talked about wooden, plastic and metal muddlers. Wood is preferred for herbs since it’s more gentle, while a heavy duty plastic or metal muddlers are ideal for the thicker skin of citrus. While every bar should have a muddling tool on hand, there are additional methods to extract flavor and aroma from your fruit and herbs.

Shaker: “I’m a fan of vigorously shaking cocktails in a half a tin of ice to get the same results as muddling,” says Andrew Larson, creative lead behind the bar at San Diego’s The Nolen. “That’s my preferred method. It separates everything and incorporates it all into the drink. You have to really put your arm into it, though.”

Spoon: “I like the bar spoons with the weighted flat sided ends,” says Lebedevitch. “They are great to break apart a sugar cube in a small amount of water, and bitters for an old fashioned.”

Liquid Nitrogen: If you’re into science, Mantilla’s alternative to a traditional muddler may appeal to you. He says liquid nitrogen does an excellent job of extracting flavors from leafy herbs without releasing enzymes that decompose the plant or cause bitterness. “By adding a small amount of liquid nitrogen to the herbs and muddling them, they will instantly shatter and create a fine powder,” he says. “Just add alcohol, stir and strain for optimal results.”

Hands: "Another method I like to use to really lend a fresh and vibrant nose to a cocktail is slapping the herb,” says Mantilla. “When using broad-leaf herbs like mint or basil, you simply take a few fresh leaves place them between your hands and clap one time. This releases the essential oils and provides a pleasant olfactory sensation adding to the complexity of the flavor."

Wendy Rose Gould is a freelance lifestyle reporter and photographer based in Phoenix, Arizona. From Tel Aviv to Miami, from Prague to NYC, she enjoys sipping on well-crafted cocktails in all corners of the world.

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