WHAT’S IN A GARNISH?
The word “garnish” comes from the old French garnir, which originally had military implications. It meant to arm oneself or to be outfitted for battle. But as language evolved, it took on more of a decorative tone – meaning simply to embellish. And this is where food and drink comes into the story.
It’s also interesting that “garnish” is a French word and concept because it was in France that high cuisine was first codified into a gastronomic religion and where the modern restaurant was born. And when we’re talking about this place and this particular time in history, it’s hard not to think of the godfather of flavor: Jean-Enthelme Brillat-Savarin, author of a series of essays called The Physiology of Taste or Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy.
As we were skimming through this book, thinking about garnishes and the role they play in the cocktail world, wecame across a really interesting little passage in Meditation 14 “On the Pleasures of the Table,” where the author draws key distinction.
“The pleasure of eating is the actual and direct sensation of satisfying a need.
The pleasures of the table a are a reflective sensation which is born from the various circumstances of place, time, things, and people who make up the surroundings of the meal.
The pleasure of eating is one we share with animals; it depends solely on hunger and on what is needed to satisfy it.
The pleasures of the table are known only to the human race; they depend on careful preparations for the serving of the meal, on the choice of place, and on the thoughtful assembling of the guests.
The pleasure of eating demands appetite, if not actual hunger; the pleasures of the table are most often independent of either one or the other.”
What he’s saying here is that there are first order human needs. And then there are desires and embellishments that transcend those animal impulses. The garnish falls into this latter group, and so as you think about mastering your garnish game, I’d encourage you to continue on in the tradition of Brillat-Savarin and really consider what you’re trying to accomplish when you add a further embellishment to a cocktail that is already technically complete.
So with that general instruction in mind, let’s jump into a list of tips and tricks you can use to master your garnish prep game and impress your friends and family this summer when you’re entertaining.
Tip #1: Do Some Basic Math
Before anything else, you need to procure your garnish materials. That means you should know what kind of drinks you’d like to make, what your garnish is going to be, and how many guests you plan to serve. The basic assumption here is that it’s bad form to run out of garnishes half-way through, so buy enough to get you through.
When it comes to citrus, imagine how many peels you can get out of an average sized fruit, and do the basic multiplication from there. When it comes to herbs, you can do the same thing, whether you’re using a single large basil leaf, a rosemary stem, or a sprig of mint.
The moral of the story is: do some basic math before you go to the store.
Tip #2: Know Your Tools
Anybody with a basic kitchen setup can assemble perfectly attractive fruit or herb garnishes. But if you want to get more advanced, it might pay to pick up other tools, like decorative cocktail picks, a channel knife for creating thin ribbons of citrus peel, or a microplane for grating nutmeg.
These things are not expensive, but you usually need to have a plan in order to justify purchasing them. This is another point in favor of planning out your menu before guests arrive. That way, you’ll be sure to have the tools of the trade ready for action.
Tip #3: Use the Whole Buffalo
When it comes to reducing waste during your garnish prep, it’s important to know what can be repurposed for other uses. My favorite example of this type of sustainability is citrus.
If you’re using the peel for your garnishes, don’t forget to reserve the fruit for its juice – even if you don’t need it right away. It’s perfectly acceptable to put a peeled lemon, lime, or orange into a ziploc bag in the fridge and come back to it later. In my experience, the juice does just fine as long as it has a healthy layer of that white pith to protect it.
The same principle works in reverse. So if you’re only planning on using the juice of your citrus – why not peel it before-hand? This way, you’ve got pre-prepped citrus twists, OR you can create something called an Oleo-Saccharum. This is basically citrus oil-infused sugar, and you make it by sprinkling a healthy dose of granulated sugar over your citrus peels and allowing the mixture to sit covered overnight. Oleo Saccharums are great in classic punch recipes, but you can also sub them in for simple syrup in your favorite cocktails.
Tip #4: Don’t Sleep on Pickles
That’s right, you heard us – pickles. In my opinion, pickled or savory garnishes are waaaay too often overlooked in the cocktail world. Normally, when you think pickles, you think about a pickleback shot, or maybe even a bloody mary. But keep in mind that cucumbers aren’t the only things one can pickle.
Personally, one of our favorite summer garnishes to use in fruity, clear spirit cocktails is a pickled watermelon rind. It’s beautiful, and adding a bit of salt or vinegar to the drink gives you a much more dynamic range of flavors than you might otherwise have.
Tip #5: Think in Three Dimensions
This is probably one of the most important tips we have because it really impacts the way you execute your garnishes in the glass. And that, in turn, drastically affects the drinking experience.
To explain what we mean by thinking in three dimensions, let’s take two garnish case studies.
The first involves a nice, thin ribbon of lime peel cut using a channel knife. At face value, it’s just kind of a line of peel – barely three dimensional at all – and as such you can’t really do much with it. But if you were to take a metal straw and wind that peel around it so that it takes on a coiled, spring-like form, you’ve got a much more interesting shape to drape over the side of your glass.
Another case study is using a thin ribbon of cucumber. Depending on the length of the slice and the size of your glass, there are a couple really interesting things to do. If you’re using a highball or collins glass, consider placing the peel flush against the side of the glass before you add your ice and your liquid. This way, the drinker will see it and be able to enjoy the color contrast. Another option might be to skewer the peel on a cocktail pick and make it into a more folded shape.
The more you can bring your garnish into a three dimensional space, the more interesting it will be.
Tip #6: Think about Spices, Rims, and Drizzles
Most of the time, people think about very flourishy garnishes – stuff that sticks out of the glass and really catches the eye. But sometimes a minimalist approach is nice, too.
A simple spiced or salted rim is a great way to nail your garnish game with a single ingredient like old bay seasoning or sal de gusanos (which is a special Mexican salt that I’ll let you look up on your own).
But if you’re looking to execute a rim or a drizzle inside the glass, on the surface of the drink, you need to think about surface tension. In other words, what’s going to float and what won’t. In this case, an egg white cocktail (or something equivalent made using aqua faba) is a major win because a good foam head will allow you to float whole spices, honey drizzles, or edible flowers like nasturtiums right on top of the drink.
The other cool thing about an egg white foam is that it provides a striking blank canvas that can really make your minimal garnishes pop.
Tip #7 – Manage Your Moisture
I have two moisture related tips for your garnish endeavors. One involves keeping it in, and one involves removing it entirely.
If you’re trying to prep citrus twists ahead of something like a large get-together, I’d recommend storing them between two moist paper towels in an airtight ziploc bag in the fridge. This way, they’ll retain their moisture content and springiness during the few hours between when you prep them and when you use them.
On the other hand – let’s talk about dehydrated citrus wheels. These are a super easy DIY project you can do the night before a cocktail party, and we promise you’ll score major craftiness points for this one. All you need to do is slice your lemons, limes, or blood oranges into ¼” – ½” wheels, then lay them on a cooking tray lined with parchment paper, and place them in the oven overnight with the oven light on. After 8-12 hours, you’ll have some beautiful dried citrus wheels. You can also slightly accelerate the process by turning the oven on to a low setting like 175 or 200 degrees, but when you do this, you’re at greater risk of the citrus burning or sticking to the parchment paper. So be careful and check on them more frequently.
Tip #8: Safety Matters
Now, garnishes might seem pretty safe, but there are a couple key risks you should think about as a host. One is to make sure you specify whether they’re edible or not. The last thing you want is somebody swallowing something that’s supposed to be merely decorative, or cracking a tooth on something that looks soft but has a hidden pit or seed.
Safety also involves making sure you do your research about your garnishes. Not every flower is edible. And not every sweet smelling herb is something you want to swallow. So please try not to kill your guests in the name of a pretty drink.
One great resource for this is the FDA’s GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) designation. You can follow the link in the show notes page, where you’ll find a ton of resources pertaining to all sorts of edible and non-edible stuff.
Tip #9: Contrast is King
If you want to make your cocktails really stand out, it helps to select garnishes that have good contrast appeal with the color of your drink. So if you’ve got a dark colored cocktail, think about a nice bright, vibrant garnish. And if you have a clear or light-colored drink, go for something that’s going to interrupt that pattern with some dark colors.
This contrast theory also applies to flavor pairing between the garnish and the drink. In general, you either want to really complement the drink or really push against the drink’s flavor profile and go in a completely different direction.
An example of a really safe, non-contrasting garnish is the lemon twist in a classic martini. It contrasts just enough with the clear cocktail to be noticeable, but it also pairs really seamlessly with the gin and dry vermouth.
An example of a really bold hyper contrasted garnish would be a skewer of smoked pineapple chunks atop a negroni. Both the flavor and the color are headed in a completely different direction than the cocktail itself, which teaches you something about both the garnish and the original cocktail.
Tip #10: Garnishes Aren’t Serious
That’s right – leave it to us to go on and on about how to up your garnish game and then turn around and tell you it’s not serious.
Don’t get us wrong, it’s important, but it’s not serious.
What we’re trying to say is that all garnishes, at least to me, have a sense of levity. You’re elevating your drink, but you’re also contributing a sparkle of lightness and creativity to the end product. A garnish should be a conversation piece – it should be a celebration of something – whether it’s the season, the occasion, the company, or anything else under the sun.
But please – if you ever find yourself taking your garnishes too seriously, that might be a sign that you’re going a little overboard. If you yourself can’t enjoy them, then what’s the point?