When it comes to lime juice, freshest is best ... right? Not so fast!
Sunkist commercial juicer: juicing at the speed of thought.
At Tales of the Cocktail one of my co-speakers, Death + Company superstar bartender Thomas Waugh and I got into an argument about lime juice. He insisted that juice made with a machine—specifically the Sunkist Juicer—is inferior to juice pressed by hand using a hand juicer (pictured to the left, below).
When we finished bickering about juicer merits I launched into my standard anti-old-lime-juice tirade. Lime juice doesn't keep. I have spent years and thousands of dollars trying to achieve good lime flavor that sticks around, but neither I nor the corporations that have spent way, way more have found a way to truly preserve fresh lime flavor. I've tasted the best that the flavor houses can muster—which are good, but not perfect.
After the seminar, a bartender approached me and said his bar had run some tests, the results of which showed that they preferred the taste of lime juice that was several hours old to fresher lime juice. I wish I could remember who he was. His conclusions struck me as odd, and I recently decided to investigate further.
Hand juicer: goes anywhere, is only as fast as its master.
During the last week of September I was a guest speaker at the BAR program—the mega bartender class by Dave Wondrich, Dale Degroff, Paul Pacult, Steve Olsen, et al. I was to speak to 55 people who had just gone through a rigorous spirits tasting program. I decided to do the lime juice test:
At 2:00 p.m. we separated one and a half cases of limes into three equal piles. I juiced one pile in the Sunkist juicer and one pile with the hand juicer. We were done by 2:15. We weighed the samples —the machine juicer yielded 26 ounces of juice, the hand juicer 21.5. I then put the juice in covered quart containers and left them out of the fridge.
The yield from the hand-juiced limes on the left, the Sunkist on the right.
At 6:15 p.m. I juiced the third pile. We then made limeade by mixing the same amount of each lime juice with measured amounts of water and simple syrup. We served it in a blind tasting at 7:00 p.m.
The overwhelming favorite was the hand-squeezed lime juice that was four hours old. The distant second place was four-hour-old machine-pressed juice. Almost no one chose the fresh, hand-squeezed juice. Before I revealed what the samples were, I asked those who chose the four-hour hand-pressed juice to choose a second favorite. They all chose the four-hour machine juice. I was flabbergasted, and so was the audience.
If these results are repeatable, hand-pressing makes better juice than machine-pressing (in a Sunkist), but the effect isn't as important as using slightly aged lime juice. Bartenders, your drinks are probably tasting better at the end of your shift than at the beginning.
Age Your Juice? Some Comments:
I don't know why the four-hour juice tasted better. Clearly we need to run more tests. What is the optimum aging time? Don't know yet. Maybe the bartender I met at Tales will step up, reveal his identity, and give us his results.
Some tasters commented that the aged juices not only tasted better but also had more of an acid bite. If this is true, making a balanced pre-batched lime drink several hours before service will result in an unbalanced, overly acidic drink at service time.
Aged lime juice, while preferred in limeade, might not be the best for every drink. Perhaps a margarita is best with aged juice and a non-cordial gimlet is best with fresh-or vice versa. More tests.
Lastly, if indeed the aged juice tastes more acidic (and I don't mean it actually has more acid -i.e. has a lower pH; these are just subjective taste impressions), maybe the fresh lime juice would have won the taste test if we had added a couple extra ounces of it to the limeade.
Left: hand-juiced lime front and back; Right: machine juiced lime.
The Sunkist Versus the Hand:
Why did the juice from the hand press beat out the Sunkist? There are several possibilities:
1. The oil extraction from the peels could be different in the two techniques.
2. The first juice that comes out of each lime first might taste better than what comes out last —so the increased yield of the Sunkist would compromise flavor.
3. The spinning reamer of the Sunkist might be scraping some bitter stuff out of the pithy albedo.
Yet more tests (sigh).
As a juicer (not a machine, but a person who juices), I like using both techniques. They both have a Zen thing to them. I am a little depressed that the hand juicer won so overwhelmingly, because now I will never use the Sunkist unless yield or time is of utmost importance. Speaking of the time it takes to juice limes, I should add that most people are very slow when using a hand juicer —two or three times slower than on a Sunkist. A good hand-juice ninja can easily beat a novice Sunkist user. A master of the Sunkist, however, can produce a rain of spent lime halves reminiscent of spent cartridges in The Matrix, and a torrent of juice like a waterfall.
Of course, I like to juice things. I secretly believe that a person's worth is roughly proportional to how fast they can juice three cases of citrus. Maybe I'll write a post about it.
This post also appears on CookingIssues.com. All photos, with the exception of the lead image, courtesy of Cooking Issues.