Saturday, 23 November 2013

DIY Angostura Orange Bitters

I'm working on a Dexter-meets the Borgias style murder mystery. It's basically an excuse to do lots of research into things botanical. I've just about finished book one, Machiavelli's Acolyte, and I'm limbering up to do the final proof. The second is already bubbling in my brain - with the wicked title of More Villain Thou. I can't wait.


Well, I got sidetracked this afternoon by the creation of a character with hiccups. How did you cure hiccups in the 17th century? Well, had they known, Angostura bitters can work.

Suitably inspired, I’ve simplified an existing recipe for Angostura-style orange bitters. Allow three weeks, which sounds a lot, but it’s basically bunging stuff together and then leaving it for a weeks at a time. If you start at the beginning of December, it’ll be ready by Christmas.

A note for UK users: so many online recipes call for Everclear, not available in the UK. Cheap schnapps is fine!

Ingredients:
500 ml alcohol
225g dried orange peel
1 teaspoon cardamom seeds
1 teaspoon cordiander seeds
walf teaspoon caraway or star anise
water
225g white sugar


  • Place the spices in a Kilner jar and cover with alcohol.
  • Seal the jar and let the mixture stand in a cool, dark place for three weeks, giving the jar a shake once a day, or when passing.
  • Strain the alcohol through a cheesecloth to separate the liquid from the dry ingredients.

(Some recipes get fussy here, and fiddle about with more liquid, squeezing and so on. I skipped it, and it worked fine.)

  • Place the sugar in a small pan over medium to high heat. Stirring, heat through until it becomes liquid and dark brown (caramelising). Don’t do this too quickly, or you’ll end up with toffee!
  • Remove from heat and allow to cool, but not too much, or it gets too sticky.
  • Add the melted sugar to the mixture. The sugar will solidify for a minute and look like a giant golden iceberg, but don’t panic! It will dissolve in a few hours.
  • Reseal the jar and allow the mix to sit for five days or so.
  • If you want a really clear liquid, strain again and pour into a bottle from which you can pour small amounts. I recycled a Grand Marnier bottle and made my own label.

These bitters can be stored for up to 12 months.

As for the orange peel, grab a regular orange, peel it and remove as much pith as you can. I use a grapefruit knife, in fact.

Cut the peel into ½-inch strips using scissors and lay them out on a cutting board so they can air dry for a few days (three is usually enough in a warm kitchen). If the oven’s on, you could place on a non-stick sheet and bake at 65 C. This takes up to four hours, so it’s up to you. Still, if you’re going to make a batch, it might be worth it, as you can store the peel in a sealed container. I haven’t tested how long it keeps, yet!


If you think this is fiddly, it really isn’t, once you get going. The jar looks fantastic in the cupboard as the spices infuse. And how about this for incentive? A 100ml of orange bitters will cost around £10, not including postage. Ouch.


Did you know? Bitters were originally used as medicine to treat all manner of ailments, but usually relating to digestion. You can actually added a drop of Angostura bitters to soda or ginger ale to help settle an upset stomach? I haven’t but I’m assured it works.

What is fascinating is that bitters were usually taken by themselves. It took until the late 1700s for folks to add them to spirits, and hence the cocktail was born. Although they are strong, they are applied by the drop and should not make the drink ‘bitter’.

Your expert bitter merchant is aware of three components:

  • the bittering agent: gentian, quassia or even wormwood (famous as an ingredient in absinthe). These are a bit esoteric, but I plan to have a poke around
  • the flavour: it can be orange, as above, but you could consider, vanilla, lemongrass or ginger.
  • the solution: normally alcohol, vodka, gin, rum, whiskey or brandy (the last three are good for darker bitters, I understand).
Of course, different ingredients release their flavours at different speeds, but to keep things simple, the recipe above is fine.

I intend to experiment with having two mixes on the go for different ingredients to see if I can tell the difference. I like cooking, but this might be the limit. I shall report back.

By Pamela Kelt

Here are some photos of the caramelisation process. Such fun.