Muddling brings out the soft and tender elements of fruit and vegetables by crushing the firmer flesh and revealing the sweet and aromatic inner flavors. Muddling is the hidden secret to blending together flavors without pureeing them, changing their texture. A mint julep is the perfect example of muddling, in this case mint with raw sugar to bring out the flavors instead of pulverizing them.
I like to use wood for my muddling, but high volume bartenders will use a plastic one or one made of stainless steel. Wood is just too difficult to clean on the fly and it cannot be sterilized in the commercial chemicals without deteriorating. You can muddle roasted fruits with syrups and fragile herbs before adding liquor and soda water. That’s what makes for a wonderfully ‘muddled’ cocktail — you’d muddle for only a few presses so you don’t turn the herbs to chlorophyll, making them unpalatable and ruining your cocktail.
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There are several different kinds of muddling tools. I’ll cover the ones I use most often here. The first is similar to a child’s sized baseball bat, although the handle, instead of being carved with curves, is straight up and down. The surface that does the muddling is slightly rounded and is curved on the edges. It’s what I use most often.
Another common tool is the weighted, flat side of a bartender’s spoon. This can be used to crack ice and to muddle mint in a pinch. I use this tool often as well.
I’ve seen glass muddlers- stay away from these. Weighted stainless steel or sealed wood, it’s up to you really. Just make sure that the tool is comfortable in your hand. You want to have this implement as your old friend. A utensil that is a part of what you do for a living, or with great passion for the craft of cocktails at home.
A good way to get a feel for muddling is by taking a brown sugar cube and wetting it with ample amounts of Angostura Bitters, then smashing it down with your muddler. You don’t have to use much force; the downward motion is probably going to do a fine job. The same holds true for mint. Do not over muddle your mint. Whatever cocktail you make will have the flavor of vegetal chlorophyll running through it. It will be gross. Don’t do it!
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Fruit… I love to muddle fruit. The bright flavors and fresh characteristics of the sweet juicy product just shine through when you muddle fruit, be it freshly picked or even oven roasted. I tend to prefer to roast the fruit first, muddle, add some spearmint, muddle a tad bit more and build your cocktail from this point on. Oranges that have been roasted first seem to resonate to me, as do pineapples and Texas grapefruits. Often times I treat the fruit to a funky variety of sugar, such as Demerara, or Turbanado for a funky and tangy finish. Angostura Bitters add nice depth and when you go to muddle the roasted or grilled fruit- the addition of of the bitters go a long way towards hitting that cocktail sweet spot.
Use very little force and you should be ok. Never over mash mint and always wash your fruit or herbs carefully before adding to any cocktails!