Homemade limoncello is way easier to make than you'd expect

Sip it all summer long!

Published June 2, 2022 6:15PM (EDT)

 (Julia Gartland / Food52)
(Julia Gartland / Food52)

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There's a lot to love about Kachka: A Return to Russian Cooking by Bonnie Frumkin Morales — our most recent Piglet champion! — but one thing excited me most: vodka. Which, if you know me, doesn't make any sense. Because I hate vodka. Or I thought I did.

Kachka's first chapter is all about vodka — or, more specifically, infusing it. Tarragon, horseradish, chamomile, cacao nib, cranberry, strawberry. From Morales's perspective, the possibilities are practically endless: "Alcohol is the perfect vehicle to both preserve and amplify flavors," she writes.

Just, I thought, like Italian limoncello. This strong, sunny, lemon-infused Italian liqueur is usually enjoyed as a digestif, or post-dinner drink. I first stumbled upon it while in Italy with my mom, who insisted upon limoncello as often as possible, after we waddled our way home from all the pizza and pasta. When in Rome! But literally.

In The Tuscan Sun Cookbook by Frances Mayes and Edward Mayes, they suggest adding a splash to a glass of lemonade. But pour this over ice and it could practically be lemonade — sweet and sour and refreshing. Just, you know, proceed with caution: "Some people are in love with this and drink three or four glasses because it seems innocent," they write. "This is a mistake."

Food52 staff writer Kelly Vaughan developed a cocktail recipe featuring limoncello for her summer wedding — she called it "The Lemon Squeezer" and made it with equal parts limoncello, prosecco, and soda water. "It's like a slightly boozy, super bubbly version of lemonade — perfect for a hot July day!" she said.

How to make limoncello

There are so many delicious brands of limoncello that you can buy at the liquor store (Pallini and Landucci are two of our favorites), but you can also make your own limoncello at home. Our recipe only requires 15 minutes of hands-on work, but you'll need to wait at least a week before you can drink it. Gather the following ingredients: 11 lemons, 1 (750ml) bottle vodka, 1 cup of just-boiled water, and 1 cup of granulated sugar.

Start by peeling the lemon zest into thick strips, avoiding as much of the white pith as possible, and add it to a big glass jar. Pour the vodka into the jar and stir the two together. Add those and the peppercorns to a big glass jar with a lid. Add the vodka, stir, and then tightly seal the jar with a lid. Let the lemons and vodka be infused at room temperature — preferably in a cool, shady spot like a pantry — for at least five days, or up to one whole month. The longer you let it sit, the lemonier it will taste (personally, I loved the flavor after just one week).

Once you're happy with how it tastes, strain the vodka through a fine-mesh sieve, pressing on the lemon peels to get every last drop of limoncello. In a saucepan, combine equal parts water and granulated sugar and heat until the sugar dissolves, stirring frequently. Let the mixture cool and then slowly stir it into the limoncello. Store the limoncello in the fridge or freezer (my preference) indefinitely.

Limoncello variations

Limoncello recipes often differ on two counts:

Type of alcohol: This all depends on the proof — or percentage of alcohol by volume. Most vodkas are 80-proof, or 40% alcohol. This is what I prefer here. It infuses well and is plenty strong but still lets the limoncello flavor shine. Or you could go stronger, say with higher-proof vodka or highest-proof, neutral grain alcohol. Some argue that these yield stronger flavors, but they also yield stronger limoncellos. The result will be a boozier beverage that, I think, is personally less palatable for sipping as a digestif.

Sugar content: After you steep the alcohol and lemon peels, until opening the jar smells like crawling up into a lemon tree, and the liquid is gold, you have to sweeten it. I'm not one for sweet drinks, but it's crucial here. The amount, though, is up to you. Starting with a 750ml bottle of vodka, I will add 1 cup sugar — dissolved in 1 cup hot water, to create a simple syrup. Some recipes add as much as four times that amount. Start small, taste, and build from there.

Other additions: Many limoncello recipes end at those few ingredients, but I wanted to do something extra special. My recipe also differs on one more count: black pepper. Adding slightly crushed peppercorns along with the lemon peels adds some spice and warmth, a little tickle at the back of your throat, which I really love in a digestif. I call it limoncello e pepe. Or, after a glass, 'cello e pepe! Just perfect after a big bowl of cacio e pepe.

Recipe: Limoncello e Pepe

By Emma Laperruque

MORE FROM Emma Laperruque

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