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Fresh Lime Juice: WTF?

October 1st, 2010 · 48 Comments · Uncategorized

by Dave Arnold

When it comes to lime juice, freshest is best…right?  Not so fast!

At Tales of the Cocktail one of my co-speakers, Death and Co super-star bartender Thomas Waugh, and I got into an argument about lime juice. He insisted that juice made with a machine –specifically the Sunkist Juicer:

Sunkist commercial juicer: juicing at the speed of thought.

is inferior to juice pressed by hand using this:

Hand juicer: goes anywhere, is only as fast as its master.

When we finished bickering about  juicer merits I launched  into my standard anti-old-lime-juice tirade.  Lime juice doesn’t keep.  I have spent years and thousands of dollars trying to achieve good lime flavor that sticks around, but  neither I nor the corporations that have spent way, way more  have found a way to truly preserve fresh lime flavor.  I’ve tasted the best that the flavor houses can muster –which are good, but not perfect.

After the seminar, a bartender approached me and said his bar had run some  tests, the results of which showed that they preferred the taste of lime juice that was several hours old to fresher lime juice.  I wish I could remember who he was.  His conclusions struck me as odd, and this Wednesday I decided to investigate further.

The Test:

This week I was a guest speaker at the BAR program –the mega bartender class  by Dave Wondrich, Dale Degroff, Paul Pacult, Steve Olsen, et al.  I was to speak to 55 people who had just gone through a rigorous spirits tasting program.  I decided to do the lime juice test:

At 2pm we separated 1.5 cases of limes into 3 equal piles. I juiced 1 pile in the Sunkist juicer and 1 pile with the hand juicer.  We were done by 2:15.  We weighed the samples –the machine juicer yielded 26 ounces of juice, the hand juicer 21.5. I then put the juice in covered quart containers and left them out of the fridge.

The yield from the hand-juiced limes on the left, the Sunkist on the right.

At 6:15pm I juiced the third pile.  We then made limeade by mixing the same amount of each lime juice with measured amounts of water and simple syrup.  We served it in a blind tasting at 7pm.

Results:

The overwhelming favorite was the hand-squeezed lime juice that was 4 hours old. The distant second place was 4 hour old machine pressed juice.  Almost no one chose the fresh hand squeezed juice.  Before I revealed what the samples were, I asked those who chose the 4-hour hand-pressed juice to choose a second favorite.  They all chose the 4-hour machine juice. I was flabbergasted, and so was the audience.

The tasting panel.

If these results are repeatable, hand-pressing makes better juice than machine-pressing (in a Sunkist), but the effect isn’t as important as using slightly aged lime juice. Your drinks are probably tasting better at the end of your shift than at the beginning.

Age Your Juice? Some Comments:

I don’t know why the 4 hour juice tasted better.  Clearly we need to run more tests.  What is the optimum aging time? Don’t know yet. Maybe the bartender I met at Tales will step up, reveal his identity, and give us his results.

Some tasters commented that  that the aged juices not only tasted better, but had more of an acid bite.  If this is true,  making a well balanced pre-batched lime drink several hours before service will result in an unbalanced, overly acidic drink at service time.

Aged lime juice –while preferred in limeade, might not be the best for every drink application.  Perhaps a margarita is best with aged juice and a non-cordial gimlet is best with fresh –or vice versa. More tests.

Lastly, if indeed the aged juice tastes more acidic (and I don’t mean it actually has more acid –ie has a lower pH; these are just subjective taste impressions), maybe the fresh limeade would have won the taste test if we had added a couple extra ounces of it to the limeade.

The Sunkist Versus the Hand:

Why did the juice from the hand press beat out the Sunkist?  There are several possibilities:

1. The oil extraction from the peels could be different in the two techniques.

2. The juice that comes out of the lime first might taste better than what comes out last –so the increased yield of the Sunkist would compromise flavor.

3.  The spinning reamer of the Sunkist might be scraping some bitter stuff out of the pithy albedo.

Left: hand-juiced lime front and back; Right: machine juiced lime.

Yet more tests (sigh).

As a juicer (not a machine, but a person who juices)—I like using both techniques. They both have a Zen thing to them. I am a little depressed that the hand juicer won so overwhelmingly, because now I will never use the Sunkist unless yield or time is of utmost importance. Speaking of the time it takes to juice limes, most people are very slow using a hand juicer –two or three times slower than they are on a Sunkist.  A good hand-juice ninja can easily beat a novice Sunkist user. A master of the Sunkist, however, can produce a rain of spent lime halves reminiscent of the Matrix, and a torrent of juice like a waterfall.

Of course, I like to juice things.  I secretly believe that a person’s worth is roughly proportional to how fast they can juice 3 cases of citrus. Maybe I’ll write a post about it.

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48 Comments so far ↓

  • Marty

    I read an article where McGee said that lime juice oxidizes quickly.

    http://drinkfactory.blogspot.com/2010/08/harold-mcgee-and-tony-conigliaro.html

    Couldn’t that just mean that oxidized lime juice is more palatable? Surely there must be a point where aged lime juice goes downhill. When, Dave? 6 hours? 8 hours? Tests! Tests!

  • john gertsen

    may i suggest the orange-x?
    good yield (with 36 count limes), excellent “zen” factor, sturdy, and manual.
    drink loves them

  • Noah Ellis

    Hi Dave —

    Jordan Kahn turned me on to this site — I love what you’re doing.

    A couple comments:

    I completely agree about pressing versus machine-reaming juice from citrus — the end result is more pithy (if that’s a real word) when you use the Sunkist (or similar).

    Additionally, when pressing juice to order, especially if you’re pressing into a jigger next to your mixing tin, there’s a spray of citrus oil, some of which makes it into the tin, glass, etc. As an aside, it creates a great aroma which, arguably, improves the cocktail experience for the guest (this might be a bit “soft” for a blog of this nature).

    Regarding the aging, I discovered something similar during an opening in Washington DC — since we were open for lunch, we would use our left-over lemon juice from the night before to make lemonade for the next day. Sure enough, the lemonade was much better. This made me wonder the same thing. During a later opening in Las Vegas, when I made Fish House punch, I found it also needs to sit, at least overnight, for it to really come together. I didn’t do enough of an experiment to determine if what I liked was some sort of co-mingling of flavors that occurred over time, or if it was the oxidation of citrus that did it.

    However, I also found that using lemonade/limeade as a barometer for this might be faulty — there’s a certain expectation of “mellowness” of flavor in these drinks which makes them, at least to me, more desirable, once they’ve been sitting. For the majority of cocktails, however, where you want a bracing, fresh acidity (even a sour, which is basically just an alcoholic-lemonade), after doing a number of tests, I found that the squeezed to order was far superior. To my mind, the Nevada cocktail with the fresh grapefruit and lime demonstrates this nearly perfectly.

    It might be interesting to test it on different cocktails and different spirits – perhaps there’s an element of oxidation that needs to be at different levels for optimum drink flavor depending on the type of drink, spirits, temperature, etc.?

    If this is the case, there’s got to be a way to simulate oxidation, or maybe the dissipation of volatile oils so it can be precise, no?

  • Dan

    The aging doesn’t surprise me – I won’t speculate as to why, but having grown up in the Midwest where lemonade and limeade were the drinks of choice during the summer, we all knew that you made first thing in the morning if you were going to have it for lunch or in the afternoon. It was always too tart to drink if drunk just after making.

    As to machine versus hand juicer, I’d venture that your speculation that the machine is getting some of the bitter oils from the pith is dead-on

  • KD

    Dave, I wonder…how many of those polled regularly mix with juice squeeze a la minute? If none, I think there’s a high likelihood of selection bias in your test. These are professional bartenders with staff juicing cases of citrus…probably starting at least an hour before service. I would doubt if “fresh” juice ever really made it into any of the drinks they made on a nightly basis. If that’s the case, of course they’ll find something unfamiliar about the just-juiced product…

    • davearnold

      Good point KD

    • Andrew

      I agree. Perception of quality is just what people are used to to really test it you would need to have a selection of different cultures so its more definitive whether resting changes the flavour to be more palatable.

      I was also wondering whether you subject these tests to statistical analysis? Not that you need to but its a pretty useful way of seeing if the results really are significant or not.

      Oh also on an unrelated note I saw in a food tech publication that Industrial Research Ltd won a prize for an extraction using high pressure CO2 called Supercritical extraction. It sounds like the technique you posted about before but on an industrial scale and probably higher pressures as the article talks about using it to extract omega 3 fatty acids from fish waste.

      • davearnold

        Hi Andrew,
        We don’t run any stats. I’ve always wanted to do supercritical CO2 but it is out of my price range. It is a different process than the N2O stuff but very, very cool.

  • D

    How “rigorous” was this spirits tasting program that your tasters had just finished? Were people wastyface/palate-destructed?

    Although, the mellows-with-time argument strikes me as downright plausible…

    • davearnold

      Howdy,
      The class didn’t appear to be shellacked. When it comes to tasting, the class is pretty hardcore, but I only know this through reports I’ve heard from former participants. I wasn’t there the whole day.

  • Chris Amirault

    Hi Dave,

    The mind reels. Two questions.

    1. Why lemonade instead of straight, or in a drink with booze?

    2. How do you think participants would have explained what “better” meant? What adjectives did they use to extol the virtues of the old juices?

    I have a shift tonight and I’m recruiting subjects….

    Chris

  • Chris Amirault

    Uh… that’d be limeade…

    • davearnold

      I figured straight lime juice would tire the palate pretty quickly and that adding booze would just complicate things (do they like the drink, how strong is it, etc). I think more tests need to be run with alcoholic drinks.

      • Chris Amirault

        At the bar last night, I found that the fresh and 4-hour juices were both tasty, but very different. 10-hour juice had all the problems you’ve previously decried. Interested to know if there’s some oxidation curve that takes the lime through some “good tasting” phase before it goes “bad”….

        http://bit.ly/bcUmNL

  • Chris Cannoli

    Here’s yet another possible test: does rolling a lime before you juice it have any significant effect on the amount of juice produced or the flavor?

    • davearnold

      Interesting question. Dunno.

    • Chuck

      In addition to rolling them, when my limes are getting a little less-than-fresh, I’ll often nuke them for 5-10 seconds, which (I think) results in more juice. I wonder if the heat might also affect the flavor?

  • Rusty Shackleford

    Dave, where did ya get the juicer?

  • maks

    hey!

    that was me! (that talked to you about lime juice after the seminar).

    troy sidle (formerly of violet hour & currently running the coffee program at the randolph) and i did nothing but make daiquiris one night, unfortunately utilizing very little scientific rigor, and writing even less down, but we did notice that daiquiris made with lime juice that was squeezed earlier in the day just tasted better than our fresh juice.

    we thought part of it may have to do with that particular “batch” of limes, but maybe it was the age? in any case, thanks for doing the work.

    did you ensure that the 1.5 cases were evenly split? i assume the 1 and the 0.5 cases were the same brand, from the same country, etc?

    • davearnold

      Holy Crap, Hi Maks. We did make sure (by we I mean Nastassia) that the limes were evenly split. We definitely need to run more tests though.

  • kathryn

    I also know that heating a lime (in the microwave) will mean greater juice yield, especially if hand-squeezing. I know they’ve used this trick when batching during Tales of the Cocktail.

    But now I’m wondering the effect heat has on the flavor of the juice.

  • Cesar V

    too complex of an issue…I second Chris’ comment: any particular descriptors that could explain the preferences? Without cues as to what taste/sensation is being changed you might be kicking out in the dark… In this context, is the overall lime flavor changed? bitterness vs sourness as (f) of time?

    Also, the pH might not be different, but the titratable acidity might have actually changed…

    I would start by diluting juice in water and do the test…

    Salud!

  • Kyle

    In regards to the aged lime juice my guess would be oxidation. A quick and dirty test would be to compare 4 hour lime juice to fresh lime juice that you bubble a bit of oxygen through. Or just blend it to aerate it and wait a few minutes. If the results are similar then it points to oxidation.
    Also next time perhaps leave one of the samples completely exposed to air for the entire 4 hours.

    When we’ve been making peach sorbet lately the time and speed of blending and the delay before freezing make an enormous difference in the end product due to the amount of oxidation the puree undergoes. Some is definitely better than none but too much and it ends up tasting like frozen baby food.

    Alternatively you could setup an almost sealed isolation chamber and use your plentiful stores of LN2 to introduce a positive pressure near oxygenless environment to juice and store the non oxygen laden results and see if after 4 hours there is any difference.

  • stephen

    when comparing juicing techniques… i wonder if taking a quick PH and hydrometer reading could lead to some insights on what the different machines actually yield.

    i like to save the oranges at work after they get peeled for garnishes. the pith gets hard and they dehydrate. and after they sit around for a day and a half before i get to to them, the juice has an elegant “madeirized” quality. i’m not sure what happens to the juice besides dehydration, but its plenty palatable…

  • Dominik MJ • the opinionated alchemist

    This journey fascinating me!

    It was actually pretty predictable, that (hand) pressed juice taste better than sunkist juicer juice.

    But if you think about it: if it is only about oxidation, the better juice would be the sunkist juice – as it is produced more aerated as the hand squeezed one.
    It has to be something about the pith or the peel.

    With the 4 hour aged juice, I am totally clueless. If I wouldn’t read it here, I would not believe it.
    I would love to see a test, which implies vacuumed [food saver container] lime juice – is it as good as the normal stored lime juice – or better or worse?

    Another thing would be lemons. Does the same rule apply to lemons?

    And one more thing: what is the optimum age? What is the green zone and when does it get nasty?

    • Dominik MJ • the opinionated alchemist

      Oh – and I forgot…

      A quite common experience is, that precut lime gets really soon very bitter [so it is the pith and the shell, which reacts negatively!?].

      Another question would be, how would the juice “react” if you are adding a bit neutral alcohol [vodka] to it. Would the degrading slow down? Would it speed up? Would it have any influence in the taste?

    • davearnold

      I think we have to run the tests. Maybe I’ll do it at the upcoming McGee class.

  • erik_ellestad

    A fact worth noting, the modern persian lime did not become popular until after World War I, a change driven by the citrus growers and expanding global produce market, who appreciated its thicker skin and longer shelf life.

    The original Daiquiri, or any Cuban/Carribean Drink, was almost certainly made with Key (aka Mexican Limes). The same almost certainly holds true for the Margarita or any drink originating in South America.

    I seem to recall some, possibly apocryphal, story where someone did not really understand the appeal of the Daiquiri until they visited Constante Ribailagua at El Floridita and noticed that he was hand squeezing fragrant Key Limes into the drink.

    • davearnold

      Dunno. I started having that conversation last week with Dave Wondrich and Greg Boehm, but then we started drinking.

  • arbitrary aardvark

    When you do your further research, see whether fresh squeezed oj is better 4 hours later. I have no idea, but it might seem to follow.
    Your variables at least include time temp and oxygenation.

  • N Pilbrow

    I don’t really have any scientific or chemical knowledge to back this up nor do I have a quote, but I remember reading somewhere that manufacturers of juices that are sold in grocery stores need to enrich their products with vitamin c, and on another occasion I was told that in order to get the full benefit of vitamin C from orange juice that its best to drink it immediately after its squeezed. The reason for this is essentially that the vitamin C (ascorbic acid) is very volatile and once released starts to evaporate very quickly out of the juice. I wonder if perhaps the same thing happens in other citrus as the vitamin c evaporates off the flavor improves, and the bitter edge is taken off? I don’t know enough about chemistry to say what happens with the vitamin c but it may be oxidizing or breaking down into additional compounds that flavor the juice differently?

    Thanks for a great blog!

  • drinkwell

    I wish I had the book here with me, but I believe it was the honoroable William Boothby long, long ago, who noted that when batching drinks using citrus to use somewhat less than what a simple multiplication of the serving recipe would suggest. He claimed something along the lines of citrus juice “in large quantities” have a more powerful flavor. Perhaps he was in fact noticing that the prebatched, and therefore older, citrus juice would taste more acidic and become more prevalent of a flavor in the prebatched cocktail than desired. Just a thought.

  • Giuseppe Gonzalez

    This is awesome Dave. You are like my hero right now. I have been saying it for years but you proved it.

    A few things:

    1. Although the I can see the logic of using moving to hand pressed juicers to get better juice, wouldn’t using cold limes have the same effect? (My Sunkist is expensive so I really do not want to give that bad boy up yet.)
    2. I would assume that some kind of maderization effect is happening in the pith, and that flavor is seeping into the juice. Maderized flavors (nuttiness/sherry quality) are actually quite delicious.
    3. I have always believed that oxidation is not a bad thing. Things like sherry, vermouth, madeira, PX… They don’t go bad ever (why bartenders need to keep vermouth in the fridge still perplexes me). They just evolve into something else. Same goes with apple cider, the longer you let it out, the better.
    4. I have actually used cooked clarified lime juice, in an attempt to work on a stirred Daiquiri idea and falernum, and it was kind of awesome. Not the same, but kind of reinforces what you are saying.
    5. I think in cocktails, although this is just a guess I am going to test out immediately, fresh lime would most likely work better in clear spirits and “mellowed” lime would be good aged. Word.

    Holler!

    Giu

  • Daniel

    we all know if this was tales 3 years ago…we’d all just be yelling at you to get back to juicing. Juice Monkeys Unite!

  • Kate Gerwin

    I am so happy right now…. I have been having this debate for a while, at times, pretty heated. I think it was the starting factor in one of my bar managers quitting once! SO…. my husband (who is a chef) told me once that Todd Humphries (amazing chef of Martini House in Napa Valley) told him that you must ALWAYS squeeze (lime) juice to order for dishes, NO PRE-JUICING, because the flavor and quality deteriorates over time. When hubby worked the line at martini house, all the dishes with citrus were fresh squeezed to order. So, of course, when we opened our own restaurant, I decided if it’s good enough for Chef, well, you get it. So everynight my bartenders fresh squeeze every drink made. To order. I don’t even let them pre-slice the fruit. Now, this is a great show for bar patrons… they love watching the bartenders. But at times, it’s a bit much… one of my OCD bartenders who likes to count limes estimates we go through about 325 limes on a busy saturday night…. yep, that’s about 650 hand presses a shift. We sell a LOT of fresh squeezed margaritas!!! Now, if I can get the same, if not better quality by pre-squeezing juice for the night, well, hey BONUS for me in speed of drinks and for my bartenders too! So…. any more advise, experience, or opinions would be GREATLY appreciated. From reading the posts, I am thinking that HAND squeezing juice, before a shift and using it for the night to be discarded after shift is the way to go. Is the consensus that the most QUALITY juice is hand squeezed and then left for about 4 hours before use?

    • davearnold

      We’ve seen optimum on hand squeezing between 4-6 hours old on lime juice. I still can’t believe it myself. If You don’t taste blind, fresh would win, but blind…

  • Lou

    Hey guys,

    Just tried the experiment sans sugar syrup, found the fresh to be much less tart.

    Could it have something to do with the balance achieved once sugar is introduced? i.e. introducing the same amount of sugar to differently oxidised sets of lime juice yielding a different balancing effect? i’m sure most skilled bartenders would (nay, should!) be able to correctly balance a drink for tartness as they would depending on seasonal variation of any citrus fruit?

    thoughhts?

    • davearnold

      It would be an interesting experiment to do a pH brix balance test and a straight up tasted balanced test to see if “best balanced” fresh can beat “best balanced” old.

      • Kate Gerwin

        I would LOVE to see these results. I just TODAY did my own study, which I would love to PROPERLY type up and send to you (took pics too). I have been having this discussion on the drinkology website and this is a BRIEF description of my findings… (and thanks to you, I have changed my bar program with confidence and enhanced efficiency! WOO HOO)

        post from drinkology…..
        Thanks Gaz…. what’s that they say about great minds??? :) I was half a step in front of you, planned a “clinical study” for today (LOL, clinical she says…) and here is a quick summary of our results (to be written up more professionally and added later) Today at 1:30 pm I hand squeezed 10 limes and juiced with a juicer 10 limes. I put them in the walk in. At 5:30 I hand squeezed 10 lime and juiced with a juicer 10 limes. (Let me also add that I did not see a huge difference in the yield, if you hand squeeze properly, you are not losing product, at least not product you would want) We did two tastings (14 people each, chefs, wine reps, restauranteurs). One was a tasting of all four juices, straight. The second was all 4 juices mixed with water and simple syrup. And…. the overwhelming result was that ABOVE ALL OTHER THINGS HAND JUICING IS MOST IMPORTANT, THROW AWAY YOUR JUICER NOW AND IF YOU DON’T BELIEVE ME DO YOUR OWN TEST!!! Seriously, the difference was AMAZING. And second, 4 hour old hand pressed juice won by over 72% of the votes. OLDER or as I prefer to now call SETTLED juice tastes better. It has more lime flavor and less acidic bite. DON’T MISTAKE ME HERE, THE ACID LEVELS ARE THE SAME. There is plenty of acid in the old juice, it’s just more balanced. As an avid preacher of fresh squeezed juice, let me say I am shocked. REALLY SHOCKED!! But, it’s the truth and the blind tasting shows it. I have pictures and documents of today’s events. THANK YOU ALL VERY DEEPLY FOR YOUR FEEDBACK! As a community of bartenders who take pride in our craft, you all help me make better drinks! SALUD! Oh, one more thing, The picture I took of the limes hand pressed vs. the limes juiced was very telling. Juicing will add to much pith and bitterness to your juice. promise, proof is in the pictures. Now, how can I post pics on this website???

  • Kate Gerwin

    oh, and Dave, you are my hero :)

  • Chris Day

    I agree with previous comments concerning the inadvertent ‘zesting’ of the outer skin when you hand-press.

    I’m curious, though, as to whether or not that zest would make the same difference for ONE drink (say, pressed directly into a jigger) vs. making a whole batch where you’re using the same press and – ostensibly – zesting each time.

    Tangent that just popped into my head: is there a stirred drink that uses lime zest?