Late-June through July is, hands down, my favorite part of the summer. Here in New Jersey, we’re usually treated to blue skies and warm breezes that make for perfect weekend afternoons by the pool and al fresco dining at night. I savor it, especially knowing that it’ll only be a matter of weeks before August’s sticky humidity rears its ugly head. It’s also a wonderful time for local produce. July is prime for blueberries, sour cherries, heirloom tomatoes, peaches, and sweet Jersey corn. The belle of the ball in June? Juicy, sweet-tart strawberries. If they didn’t spoil so quickly, they would, without question, cause me to develop a hoarding habit in my produce drawer.
One of my favorite local farm markets serves the most delicious mixed-to-order fruit sodas at their beverage bar. Last year, it only took one sip of their Strawberry Basil Soda to reel me in for the entire summer. The combination of the fresh fruit syrup with chilled sparkling water was so refreshing. Lightly fizzy, sweet (but not cloyingly so), with the subtle pepperiness of basil in the background, it was the perfect pick-me-up on a hot summer afternoon. It wasn’t long before I was experimenting with making a version at home.
I knew that I would need some combination of fruit, herbs, and sugar, but wasn’t sure which drink-making method (muddling, macerating, steeping, or simmering) would produce the best syrup for soda. I loved the fresh flavor of the fruit that steeping preserved, but hated the lengthy wait time. I found that I could get a really well-developed flavor by simmering pureed fruit in a straight 1:1 simple syrup (sugar boiled with water in equal quantities), but that too long a simmer dulled the strawberries’ fresh-from-the-farm quality. In the end, 5-8 minutes on the stove (plus cooling time) was just enough to bring out the flavors of the fruit and herbs and preserve their brightness, without having to resort to an overnight steeping process.
One of the benefits to making fresh fruit soda at home is that it’s completely customizable, not to mention a great way to use up berries that are starting to become overripe. Prefer a lighter flavor? Add less syrup to your glass. Don’t like basil? Give it a try with fresh thyme, or leave out the herbs entirely. (Plain strawberry syrup is delicious stirred into milk for kids…or nostalgic 30-somethings.) Want to make a cocktail for adults? Throw in a splash of vodka or rum, or use Prosecco instead of sparkling water. Make it your own and treat your guests to a fun and festive sip for the 4th!
- 1 pound cleaned and trimmed strawberries
- 1 cup water
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 3/4 cup loosely-packed basil leaves, torn
- chilled sparkling water for serving
- Puree strawberries in a blender or food processor until smooth.
- In a medium saucepan, combine 1 cup water, granulated sugar, strawberry puree, and basil. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Lower heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, 5-8 minutes. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature.
- Strain cooled mixture through a fine-mesh sieve, pressing to extract juices. Discard solids. Chill syrup until ready to use.*
- Pour 2-3 tablespoons of strawberry basil syrup into a glass. Fill with ice and sparkling water. Gently stir and add additional syrup to taste. Garnish with a sprig of fresh basil or a strawberry slice.