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When the mercury rises, so does our consumption of cold drinks. Not just for rehydration after being in the sweat bath that is the great outdoors, but also because some days it’s just too hot to eat.
A cool, sweet beverage can stand in for lunch, or stave off after-work hunger until mid-evening, when it might cool off enough for a light supper.
Unfortunately, cold drinks can get pretty darned pricey. The good news is you can save your budget — and wow your family and friends — with a tray of from-scratch sippers.
If you’re single, entertain with a frugal batch of extraordinary beverages and a few basic hors d’oeuvres.
If you’re part of a family, homemade drinks are a fun activity for the kids. Squeeze lemons and blend them with fruit, or create homemade sodas from a natural fizz-maker called a “ginger bug.”
Following are some great ideas for summer coolers. Little paper umbrellas are optional.
This is a traditional summer drink, and pairing it with lemon is a time-honored tradition. But don’t stop there. Try any of the following tea combos:
- Blackberry sweet tea
- A citrus variety with pineapple, orange and lemon juices, plus cloves
Southern Living has a recipe that is a stunningly simple, but super-sophisticated way to hydrate your guests. The following is based on that recipe, with some modifications of my own:
- Boil two family sized tea bags in 3 cups water for one minute, then remove from heat and steep — covered — for 10 minutes.
- Stir in ½ cup honey and 1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger.
- Pour into a 1-gallon pitcher and add 7 cups of cold water. Serve over ice, garnished with lemon if you like.
Now that’s a drink your neighbors won’t get too often — until they wheedle the recipe out of you.
Incidentally, iced black tea is one of the cheapest beverages you’ll find. Look for the store-brand tagless teabags on the bottom shelf of the supermarket’s tea section. When they’re on sale you’ll pay as little as a penny per bag; when they’re not, maybe 2 to 3 cents apiece.
Depending on how strong you like your tea, you could pay as little as 8 to 32 cents per gallon. Compare that to those jugs of bottled iced tea: Even the plain ones cost $8 to $13 per gallon.
You may want to go with a higher-end tea, but for plenty of folks the cheap stuff tastes just as good. Besides, if you’re tossing in cloves or pineapple or blackberries, who’s gonna know that you bought the house brand?
When I was a kid, we tried to make lemonade and could never get the sugar to dissolve properly. Now I know why: The best results come from using a “simple syrup” along with freshly squeezed lemons and cold water.
SimplyRecipes.com offers step-by-step instructions to a cold glass of summer:
- Simmer 1 cup of water and ¾ to 1 cup sugar (depending on your taste) until the sugar dissolves entirely.
- Pour the syrup and 1 cup of lemon juice into a pitcher, and add 2 to 3 cups of cold water. If it winds up too sweet, add more lemon juice. Refrigerate for at least a half-hour before serving.
If you’re lucky enough to have lemons growing in the yard, juice and freeze them. Lemonade all year long!
Can’t afford all that fruit? I hear you: Where I live they cost 99 cents apiece. Try a glass of “cheater’s lemonade”: Get a packet of Wyler’s mix from the dollar store and squeeze in at least one lemon and/or lime. If you’re feeling flush, slice another lemon or lime and add it to the pitcher.
Puree strawberries, raspberries or cherries and add them to the lemonade. If the fruit texture and/or seeds bother you, strain the puree and add only the juice. The pink color is lovely, and the flavors are intoxicating.
Or go fancy on your guests with flavors like rosewater, ginger and cucumber, or lavender and mint. These and many other interesting recipes are as close as Google or Pinterest.
When was the last time you had an ice-cold cantaloupe soda? This and other frou-frou flavors can be yours with practically no effort.
- Make simple syrups of water and sugar and add fresh or concentrated fruit juices, or fruit puree.
- Mix the syrup with seltzer or club soda.
- Smile modestly when your guests rave about the quality of the beverages served in your household.
In an article on SheKnows.com, writer Jen Klein suggests flavors such as pomegranate, blueberry, currant, lemon-lime, mango-papaya and strawberry. A savvy host will go with whatever is in season, on sale or growing in the yard.
Note: If you’re using a SodaStream to make the sparkling water, be sure the main ingredient is super-cold. In an article on the Epicurious website, soda expert and cookbook author Anton Nocito explains that CO2 and H2O don’t work as well together if the water is warmer than 40 degrees. Store a jug of water in the back of the fridge before carbonating it.
Italian-style soft drinks
Remember those lemons you squeezed for lemonade? Put the remnants to work! Tamar Adler’s “An Everlasting Meal: Cooking With Economy and Grace” shows how:
- Remove citrus peels with a vegetable peeler and slice them finely.
- Simmer them in a syrup made from 1 cup water and 1 cup sugar — use a small plate to hold the peels under the liquid. Remove from heat after 15 minutes. Refrigerate until needed.
- To make the sodas, let the syrup warm to room temperature and mix with cold seltzer. Garnish with mint, if you like.
This works with other citrus fruits, too. Imagine offering your guests a tall, cold glass of grapefruit, lemon-lime or tangerine soda. Then imagine congratulating yourself on how much money you saved.
Soda from scratch
Start with a “ginger bug” — a naturally fermented base you make with fresh ginger — and add your favorite fruit juice — grape, apple, rhubarb, etc.
Not only is this a fun project for families, it’s also an easy way to offer some extraordinary drinks to friends. “Hey, you want a Coke?” pales in comparison to, “We have homemade cherry soda, rhubarb soda, mango soda, raspberry soda …”
Mother Earth News tells all – and it’s really pretty simple. Create a ginger bug with water, sugar and finely chopped ginger root. Keep the jar in a dark spot that’s not too warm and not too cool, allowing the ginger bug to activate. Check on it daily for four to eight days, adding 2 teaspoons of finely chopped ginger (with the skin intact) and 2 teaspoons of sugar each day, and stir well.
When it’s properly fizzy, add a cup to a gallon of your favorite fruit drink and allow it to ferment another 24 hours. Bottle the brew, and allow it to ferment at room temperature for at least 12 more hours.
Or go old-school in another direction — by fermenting soda with yeast. Food guru Alton Brown posted his ginger ale recipe on the Food Network’s website. You can also Google recipes for things like:
- Homemade root beer
- Homemade sarsaparilla
- Homemade birch beer — for you East Coast residents and expatriates. Or, try this mildly alcoholic birch beer recipe from Mother Earth News.
Note: Some of these recipes aren’t necessarily cheaper than store-bought soda, since they call for specific types of brewing yeast, plus dried barks and herbs from the health-food store. However, your hipster friends will certainly be impressed. Bonus: Depending on which recipe you choose, these drinks may have probiotic benefits.
If a yeast- or ginger-based soda isn’t your style, get creative with the prefab stuff. Specifically, go all mad-scientist on store-brand soft drinks. They are usually pretty cheap, especially in the summertime.
For example, let your kids mix orange juice with generic lemon-lime pop to create “homemade orange soda.” When the cherries ripen on a backyard tree or show up in bulk at the farmers market, turn them into a simple syrup and mix with no-name cola – you’ll swear you’re sipping a Cherry Coke at a soda fountain.
Puree some raspberries from a backyard bush, strain the mixture and add the juice to generic ginger ale. This post from WikiHow offers recipes for making your own Dr Pepper and Diet Dr Pepper, and one method is as simple as adding vanilla and almond extracts to a bottle of cola.
A friend invented a drink she called “swamp water” during her childhood: ginger ale, orange juice and limeade (the latter two mixed from frozen concentrates). Refreshing indeed on a hot Tennessee afternoon, she recalls.
This is not your childhood Hawaiian Punch! These drinks are great at a birthday party or Scout troop meeting, yet sophisticated enough to serve to grownup guests at a baby shower or poolside picnic.
Southern Living once again comes through with such delicious sippers as:
- Berry Splash (cherry drink mix and white cranberry juice)
- Melon Cooler (limeade, ginger ale and pureed melon)
- Ginger-Orange Mocktail (orange juice, ginger ale and pineapple juice)
- Southern Breeze (lemonade mix, pineapple juice and ginger ale).
Or do an online search for “fruit punch recipes.”
Bold idea, huh? Plain old water is good for us and has zero calories, carbs, artificial sweeteners or preservatives. It’s even gluten-free and vegan!
However, some city water is pretty terrible. (Hello, Philly and Phoenix!) That’s why you see so many people buying it by the case, or refilling 5-gallon jugs at supermarkets or — heaven help us — “water stores.”
Don’t want to lug home H2O every week? Improve what comes out of the tap by putting it through one of those filtering pitchers, or install a reverse-osmosis system under the sink. Pro tip: Be sure to make your ice cubes from the treated water, or you’ll be reintroducing the weird taste.
However, sometimes we crave sweetness — especially when you feel too hot to eat very much. Easy enough: Just doctor your water with citrus slices (orange, lemon, lime, grapefruit — pick your favorite), cut-up melon, cucumber and fresh herbs, or apple, strawberry and mint.
For more ideas, do an online search for “spa water.” Bottoms up!
Got tips or recipes for a refreshing summer beverage? Share your thoughts in the comments section or on our Facebook page.