February has traditionally been the month when the winter doubles down. Growing up, it was a time of listening to the radio for school cancellations and tobogganing on the hill behind our house, returning flushed from play. We’d shed our awkward puffy jackets just outside the back door and steam would rise from our bodies, as if we’d been enclosed in a greenhouse. Inside, there would be milk warming on the stove, our mom stirring in glorps of Hershey’s syrup and sprinkling mini-marshmallows into our mugs.
It is memories like this one that I turn to whenever I tell people I love winter.
Here are some tips for making winter warmers for adults.
Stir it up, low and slow. Obviously I wasn’t making boozy hot drinks when I was a kid, but my first oblivious encounter with food science probably came from eyeballing that film that forms when a neglected pan of hot chocolate sits over heat long enough for the proteins to coagulate. I didn’t know the technical term for it, lactoderm, which means “milk skin,” or more practically, “gross.” If you’re using dairy in a drink, keep the temperature low and stir it regularly. This applies also if you’re using a plant-based milk, some of which thicken or change texture if they boil.
Heat changes flavor — for better and worse. If you’re making a drink that involves infusing with spices, toasting them before they go into the liquid can help bring out their flavors (and also smells great). Do this over low to medium heat, and stay close; you’ll want to move the spices around the pan so they don’t scorch. When they start smelling good, you’ve reached the right spot.
On the flip side, heat also can bring out unpleasant bitter flavors in citrus juices and change the flavors of other fruits, making them more concentrated and jammy. That can work just fine in a drink, but you should keep it in mind. If you’re making a warm drink that contains fresh citrus, you want that citrus to spend as little time over the heat as possible, so add it last and get it off the heat quickly. Likewise, cooking a wine (including vermouth or sherry) will alter its flavors — one of the many reasons not to waste a great bottle of wine in a cocktail, especially if it’s going to be warmed.
Heat does not mean bye-bye to booze. Contrary to what you may have heard, applying heat to a drink doesn’t mean all the alcohol will cook off. Alcohol does have a lower boiling point than water, and if you heat, say, a pot of spiced apple cider with rum in it on the stove to 173 degrees Fahrenheit (the boiling point of ethanol), as much as 60% may cook off. But if you instead heat the cider to a simmer, add the rum and let it reheat only briefly, virtually all of the booze will still be in the drink. Consume accordingly.
Do not burn the house down. Alcohol fumes can catch on fire — beers, wines and low-ABV liqueurs aren’t dangerous on this front, but anything over 40% ABV has the potential to light up. Working over a gas stove, I’m particularly mindful about this.
While it’s unlikely to flame up, be safe: Don’t heat up a pan and then pour straight hard liquor into it. In all the accompanying recipes, you should warm up the nonalcoholic base of the drink first, then add the booze, resulting in a much lower-proof mixture getting rewarmed briefly before service.