I hate to rub it in, but this week finds me vacationing on the beautiful South Carolina coast, where the beaches are plentiful and the weather 20 times more enjoyable than what I left in New Jersey. I didn’t want you to feel entirely left out, so I decided to bring a little bit of the beach to you, friends. What could be more summer-y, pretending-to-be-on-vacation fun than sipping a margarita on your back deck? I’ve spent the week working tirelessly on your behalf, mixing and tasting margarita after margarita, developing the best recipes just for you. It was a rough job, but someone had to do it.
Many folks’ first inclination is to buy that bottled margarita mix stuff. In fact, I’m surprised to this day by how many bars and restaurants use that crap. While I wouldn’t necessarily poo-poo a margarita made from the stuff at a friend’s house, I find the mix far too sweet and artificial tasting. Looking at the back of the Jose Cuervo Margarita Mix bottle tells us that it “contains 0% juice” and the first two ingredients are water and high fructose corn syrup. Come on, we can do better than that!
I’d much rather make margaritas from scratch myself, especially considering it’s not really that much extra work. For a basic drink, all you need is tequila, orange-flavored liqueur and lime juice. The purists will tell you that you need top shelf 100 percent agave tequila and fresh-squeezed lime juice, and when it comes to the orange-flavored liqueur, only Cointreau will suffice.
I say PHOOEY. No matter what ingredients you buy, it’s going to taste better than that dang mix, so who cares? With the tequila, the better a bottle you buy, the smoother it will be going down. Just get the best your wallet can tolerate and don’t forget, you’re not drinking that puppy straight, so it doesn’t really have to be the best. Yeah, your drink might taste a little better, but by the third one, I guarantee you won’t even notice. If you can manage squeezing your own limes, I say go for it, but bottled lime juice will suffice in a pinch. In fact, if you don’t like your margaritas too tart, you might want to consider the bottled stuff in the first place—it tends to be more mild in taste. As for Cointreau, well, if you’re not interested in investing 40-odd dollars in just this element of margarita making, go for the mid-level triple sec that will cost you somewhere in the mid-teens and do the trick just fine. I swear, some of these purists wouldn’t be happy unless you were wearing a sombrero while mixing the drink. I say forget them.
The first question that arises is what to do with that ice. Do you serve the margarita frozen, on the rocks or neat? The recipe is the same, but the method is a little different. While frozen margaritas can be delicious, they strike me as rather unsophisticated. Perhaps, they would hit the spot at a mid-afternoon, pool-side barbeque, but otherwise, sipping what I call tequila slushies from a plastic cup in the evening hours just doesn’t cut it for me. Plus, who really wants to drag out that dang blender? What a pain. As for deciding whether to serve it up on the rocks, I prefer shaking it with ice and drinking it neat. It retains the flavor the best and is most compatible with a salted rim (don’t worry, we’ll get there).
The original recipe I made, was the one I found to be the most prevalent: 1.5 ounces tequila, a half ounce of triple sec and 1 ounce fresh squeezed lime juice. I quite enjoyed it, though there were members of my tasting trial group, who found it too tart. It would likely be better with higher grade ingredients. The best basic recipes, it was concluded, involved either 3 parts tequila, 2 parts triple sec and 1 part lime juice, or my favorite, 2 parts tequila, 1 part triple sec and 1 part lime juice. But it gets even better!
The supreme winner of our tasting session happened after we raided the fridge and discovered the bottle of mango nectar. I wanted an ingredient that would sweeten it up just a tad without polluting the flavor too much. Sure, you can use puréed fruits, but then you have to pull out that blender. Adding sweeter juices could help the problem but will often completely transform the flavor, especially since it's oft recommended that you decrease the amount of triple sec or get rid of it entirely when adding juice.
It wasn’t my goal to make a mango margarita as much as it was to make a margarita with a slight mango edge. I used 3 parts tequila and roughly 1 part each of triple sec, fresh squeezed lime juice and mango nectar. Pour the ingredients into a cocktail shaker, add some ice, burn a few calories by shaking that booty and pour. The combination of sweet and tart balanced perfectly, making a deliciously smooth drink enjoyed by one and all.
And now to the imperative question of what glass to serve the beverage in… Don’t get hung up on the whole margarita glass thing. They’re nice to have, but you don’t have to go out and buy a bunch just because you’re thinking of enjoying some margaritas. A typical straight-sided rocks glass will work just fine. You can also use a slightly taller glass or a martini/cocktail glass if you prefer.
As for the rim of the glass, it’s not a margarita in my opinion if you leave that baby bare. Rimming the lip is so easy, there’s no reason to leave it just to professional bartenders. All you need is a lime wedge and a bowl of salt. Rub the rim with the lime and then dip it in the salt. You can either use a plate or shallow bowl and just place the glass in top down and twist or you can work with the glass parallel to the dish containing the salt and twirl the glass around until it's evenly coated with salt.
But don’t think that salt is all you can use! Firstly, there’s the choice between kosher salt and sea salt. Since sea salt can be quite potent, don’t go overboard. For a little zing, spiking whatever salt you use is a great way to go. Add some cumin or smoked paprika or cayenne for a special little kick. If you’re not feeling the whole salt thing and you’re worried that the margarita is going to be too tart, feel free to rim the glass in sugar. Yum! You can even buy special pink sugars and the like for the job if you want to go beyond the basic stuff.
Once the rim is adorned, pour the drink in and add your garnish. A simple lime wheel usually does the trick. Just slice from one side to the middle and place on the rim for a beautiful presentation. There are lots of other options, of course, from a lime twist to a strawberry slice pierced with a paper drink umbrella. But however you make your margarita, there are plenty of ways to create one from scratch without taking up too much time or spending obscene amounts of money. It’s the sipping outside with friends that’s the important part.
Ben Salmon is a former literary agent and the owner of Kitchen a la Mode: Accessories for Cooking & Entertaining in the heart of downtown South Orange. Each week, his local food column at Patch explores the food and drink scene in the area.
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