Homemade Limoncello: The Dos & Don’ts

Oh, Limoncello… how I love you and oh so admire the time and effort that goes into making you.  What I do not love, on the other hand, is the enormity of confusing information out there on how to make you!  So here is my solution… a post on the dos and don’ts of making homemade limoncello.  Unlike most of my posts, where I babble casually in the introductions of my recipes about why I like something or how I learned to make it, this post is full of all the tips I wish I’d known before starting my own batch.   So read through all of this babble if you can bear it, ’cause it’s the important stuff… it’s a LOT, I know (really it’s like a small novel), but I think it will help if you’re interested in making your own tasty limoncello!!
So what is limoncello you ask?  It’s a traditional Italian after-dinner drink… sweet & lemony: a superb sipper (or gulper depending on your style) to enjoy post-feast.  Now I’m not a sweet-drink kinda gal, but even I like limoncello.  So when pondering all of the tasty edible drinks I could make for Christmas this year, limoncello was the clear choice.  A simple and unique little liquid treat.  And who wouldn’t looooove to get their hands on a little yellow bottle of booze for Xmas!!??  So I read through recipes.  And read and read.  And read.  Holy gejeeebus did I read (not a word I know, but pretend).  I love the internet because you can find pretty much any recipe you want on there, but let’s be honest… it’s rather nightmarish how hard it can be to weed through all of them!  I swear sometimes it takes more time to research recipes than it does to actually make them :/  Especially for something like this… everyone has their own take, style, and version of limoncello.  How in the world is one to know which recipe to choose!???  That’s where I’m hoping this will come in.  After hours, no days, of reading, I finally decided on a recipe that was a conglomeration of all the great ideas and tips I’d read, put together into one (good wait time, not too much sugar, good amount of booze, etc.).  And it worked great!  But even I, who thought I’d covered all my bases, can look back now and say I wish I’d done a few things differently.  So I decided to make a do’s and don’ts of limoncello-making.  A helpful guide for all those baffled by the enormity if internet information, wondering and pondering where to begin or which recipe to follow.  Hope it helps… ’cause making homemade limoncello is not only a rewarding process, but a super amazing (and tasty) gift idea :)
Okay, let’s get to it…
In short, here are the basic do’s and dont’s.  I’ll explain them each in more detail below :)
1- Use organic lemons
2- Use good quality booze (100 proof or more)
3- Give it some wait time- plan on about a month for the whole process
4- Have all of your materials ready to go (you’ll need a large glass jar- a gallon works well, small little glass bottles, a funnel, a pitcher, and either cheesecloth, coffee filters, or a mesh strainer to filter the limoncello)
5- Store the liquid in a cool dark place
1- Don’t use organic sugar- weird I know- I learned this the hard way, but it’ll turn that beautiful bright yellow glow a deep brownish yellow hue
2- Don’t get any pith in the mix!  (pith is the white stuff under the peel- it’ll make your drink bitter)
Alright, now the details…
1- Use organic lemons
This is particularly important.  Of course normally I’m a fan of organic when possible, but in this case, it isn’t about my preference, it’s about your health.  Typically, fruits that get peeled don’t matter as much- I mean, you peel the peel off so does it really matter what’s on there?!  In this case though, it’s the peel that makes the drink.  That peel is what soaks on the alcohol for weeks, so whatever is on it will end up in your belly.  For this reason, I highly recommend using organic… you don’t want of of that weird crap they spray on fruit, whatever it is, being the base of your drink!  Organic it is.
2- Use good quality booze
This was where the internet research got really confusing!  Half the recipes said to use Everclear, half said vodka, and then of course there were some that said something completely different.  I decided that I wanted to use a good quality, but high proof vodka.  A- Everclear isn’t available in many states (I couldn’t find it around these parts) and B- I really don’t want my drink tasting like it (blah).  On the other hand, I do want it taste like booze, just not nail polish remover… so I opted for vodka, since it’s gentler on the taste buds, but went for the 100 proof.  Not only will this allow the drink to have the kick it needs, but it will help the drink stay unfreezeable- any less proof will freeze.  Limoncello is stored in the freezer so it can be served chilled- if you use 80 proof, your drink will turn to ice.  Keep it a high proof and a good quality.
3- Give it some wait time
This part is also confusing on the web.  Some recipes say let it sit for 100 days while others (like Giada’s) say 1 week.  What in the world- that’s a huge difference!  I imagine there is something to the waiting process… the longer you let it sit, the more flavorful your liquor will be (naturally).  Thing is, I didn’t think of making limoncello until Thanksgiving- that left me only a month until Christmas.  Not to mention I just don’t have that kind of patience!  (Props to those of you who do!)  So I researched as much as I could to determine what would be a suitable, but bearable time to wait.  I settled on about 3 weeks.  Since many said one week is fine and others said two months, I compromised.  I soaked the lemon peels in the booze for two weeks and then let it all soak about 1 more (after adding remaining ingredients) before bottling for Xmas.  Worked well for me… if you’re in a hurry, it’s good to know three weeks will do.  If you have more time, use it, why not!?
4- Have all of your materials ready
Gifting drinks means you need bottles.  I ordered mine offline form a company called SaveOnCrafts (click HERE to visit their site).  They have great prices and have a wide selection so you can choose your size and style.  True story- I found the company through Pinterest and excitedly ordered a dozen 8 oz bottles (you get a discount for ordering 12 or more of each).  Then when they came, I realized they were too big and I’d never be able to fill them all.  SO I looked up their contact to return them… haha, turns out they’re located in the town 2 miles own the way.  Coincidence!  Anyway, I returned them and then got 15 6 oz bottles instead.  This recipe filled them all perfectly- 14 gifts and 1 for me!  You’ll also need a large jar to store the liquid in while it sits.  I used a large gallon-sized pickle jar from Costco.  Of course I sterilized the kageebes out of that thing (again, probably not a word, but pretend)- I didn’t want any pickle-flavored booze going down, but that’s easy.  Getting the odor out of lids on the other hand if a nearly impossible task, so I highly recommend either buying a new lid for your jar or using saran wrap and rubber bands to make it really airtight.
5- Store it in a cool dark place
Once the limoncello is in the jar and sealed airtight, keep it somewhere out of direct light and heat.  I imagine there are all sorts of great scientific reasons for this, and I will happily look into them if you’re really curious, but since you’re likely not needing a science lesson right now, I’ll just tell you to do it and trust you’ll know it’s for the best ;)
1- Don’t use organic sugar
This seems like a weird rule I know.  But man oh man do I wish someone had told me this before I started!!  Here I thought using organic was good, but it turns out, so I learned, that it’ll turn your liquid brownish.  I’d been watching my gorgeous liquid turn a brighter beautiful yellow every day, so happy and pleased!  Then it was sugar time… I made my simple syrup, stirred it in, and watched in excitement…. to my dismay, my beautiful bright sunny chipper yellow turned to poop.  Literally, a poopy yellow.  I was horrified.  Pretty sure I didn’t stop talking about ti for 36 hours (my poor boyfriend).  Thankfully, as it sat the next week, the brown sort of faded and by the time I bottled it and froze it, it looked like a nice enticing yellow again, but spare yourself the mortification and use plain granulated white sugar.  It will stay clear and let your alcohol mix stay a pretty yellow :)
2- Don’t get any pith in the mix
Finally, the last, and possibly most important rule: pith.  What is pith?  I didn’t know… but I sure do now!  Pith is that white stuff under the peel… you know, that stuff that so annoyingly remains on ranges after you peel them, no matter how hard you try to peel it off!?  (Thank you, Cuties clementines, I love you for making peeling so easy!)  Anyway, pith… pith is not your friend.  It will turn your drink bitter.  And no one wants a bitter beverage.  So get it off the best you can.  As I explain below, using a vegetable peeler makes it pretty easy, but just make sure to keep an eye out for the stuff- don’t let any sneak in your jar!!
And the last thing… rosemary!
You certainly do not need to make yours a rosemary limoncello.  I thought it sounded nice, and while I must admit, I really don’t think it did much to the flavor (just a very slight hint, at most), I liked the idea of it.  Plus, I thought it was pretty haha… I actually ended up tying a piece of rosemary to some of the jars before I gave them away- it added a nice earthy and natural quality, which I always like.  Your choice though… it really doesn’t make a big difference :)
Alright, phew, I think that’s it for the rules- now for what you’ll need…
(This recipe makes 15 six-ounce bottles)
2 bottles (750 ml each) 100 proof vodka (I used Absolut 100)
20 organic lemons (you can use ‘regular’ or Meyer)
1 five-inch sprig fresh rosemary
4 cups granulated sugar
5 cups water
(In hind-sight, this would be interesting to try with raw honey… next time!)
Start by washing and scrubbing the lemons… even when organic, they need to be scrubbed pretty well and rinsed with warm water.  If you aren’t using organic, then do this process extra well- you don’t want any pesticides or waxy stuff in your drink
First decision: peeler or grater?
I tried the grater out for a brief second, and then I realized I’d be grating for days.  So unless you have some little grating elves in your home, I would opt for peeling.  Not only is it waaaaay faster, but the veggie peeler is built so that it pretty much perfectly removes the peel without snagging the pith with it (remember the pith I talked about above- you don’t want it).  This whole process took me about ten minutes at most… not too bad considering you’re peeling 20 lemons!  If for some reason you do notice that some pith ended u[ on the peels just scrape it off with a small pairing knife.  You want to get just the yellow peel off.
See how that peeler works it… kinda perfect eh?!
So peel all the lemons
I saved the peeled lemons for a later use- you can do so many things with them!
Lemon tarts, lemonade, lemon curd, etc. (you can google “things to do with lemons” and see how many options there are!)
Point it, they’re definitely worth keep and finding a good use for :)
Then toss the peels in a large clean jar (make sure there is no pith on there-
I know I sound like a broken record, but it’s important, I swear haha)
Now toss the rosemary sprig in there (is using)
Pour the two bottles of vodka over the peels and rosemary
Stir it all together (yellow will begin to appear immediately)
Cover with either a tight lid or with saran wrap and rubber bands… it needs to be airtight
Then store in a cool dark-ish place for two weeks
Every few days or so, you can move the jar around to stir the liquid and lemon peels
After two weeks, you’ll have a nice bright yellow color
(Remember my sugar story above… so savor this moment, it’s about to change colors :( )
Now make your simple syrup…
So yah, it’s brown.  This is the result of that organic sugar business I was rambling about above.  THIS is why you want to use non-organic plain white sugar (I researched this problem since it bothered me so much… others have had this happen too, but like I said, there were no warnings out there!  this is why I’m writing this haha)
Like I said above, I’m not really a sweet-drink kind of gal, so adding a ton of sugar sounded atrocious to me, but I added less than many recipes suggested, so I think it’s a good balance of sweetness.  Keep in mind, limoncello is a sweet drink, so it’s going to be, well… sweet.  But a lot of recipes called for 5- 6 cups of sugar… this one uses 4.
When balanced out with the lemon, it works in my opinion :)
Start by heating 4 cups of sugar with 5 cups of water in a sauce pan over medium heat
Once it starts to rumble (what I call just under a boil), turn the heat to low
Let it simmer for about 15 minutes or so, until sugar is completely dissolved
Remove from heat and let cool… may take about an hour or so
Once room-temp, add to alcohol mixture
Stir it all together and then cover again, airtight, and let sit for at least another week
(Yep you guessed it, in a cool dark place)
Again, move the jar around to stir things every few days
Okay, you’ve made it… hopefully the patience paid off!  Finally time for finishing it…
To wrap this project up, you need to filter the limoncello
To do this, you’ll want cheesecloth, coffee filters, or a mesh strainer
I tried them all and found the mesh strainer (meant for coffer makers) to be the easiest- it fit right in the pitcher perfectly and strained the liquid really well
First, get the big stuff out of there- scoop out all of the peels and rosemary sprig and throw away (They’ve done there jobs!)
You’ll notice the peels will have turned kind of white- this means the alcohol has done it’s job :)
Next, use a mesh strainer (or filtering mechanism of some sort) to catch any little chunks/residues out- pour the liquid into the pitcher, a teensy bit at a time.  This is slow, but it works.  I found it really helpful to have a second set of hands here- just to hold the strainer up and make sure I didn’t spill it all over the place.  This process takes a little bit of time, but it’s important… if you feel it’s necessary, do this process twice.  It never hurts to have it extra clean!!
Now you’ll funnel the liquid into the jars
This is the easy part… just fill ‘em up until they’re ll full!
Yay, almost done!!
Place the corks/lids on the bottles tightly…
Place them all on the freezer until ready to gift and/or drink :)
When you’re ready to use them, tie some string around the necks
with a little label of some sort (optional- you can buy them at any craft store)
I added an idea for a champagne cocktail recipe on the back, just for fun :)
Serve over ice and enjoy!!
If you find that it’s not lemony enough and/or a bit too sweet for you, try squeezing some
fresh lemon in it… it’s great that way in my opinion- just some ice, limonecllo, fresh lemon, and smiles!
(Freezes well for months)

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Hi, I'm Natalie! I like to cook, eat, and adventure. I live in a little home with an itty-bitty kitchen, a crazy feline, and a very hungry boyfriend. Lots of cooking and devouring goes down here. Farmer's markets inspire me, as do the seasons and travel. I create simple recipes using wholesome real food. Enjoy!

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