Citrus juice is one of the most common cocktail ingredients and squeezing it fresh is crucial to making great cocktails. There is absolutely no comparison to the pasteurized juice you find at the store. It does indeed require a little extra muscle, but the payoff is well worth the investment. In small amounts, I liken juicing to basic kitchen prep, akin to peeling a carrot or chopping garlic. In large quantities though, juicing can certainly become burdensome. A method to help reduce the strain on your hands in that scenario is outlined below.
As a technique, juicing is pretty self-explanatory, you take a piece of citrus and you squeeze the juice out of it (preferably with a juicer). The key is to keep the process clean and organized, and if you’re juicing a large amount to set up your station efficiently. Lemon and lime juice is most commonly used in cocktails. Though grapefruits and oranges play important roles as well.
This page illustrates juicing with a manual hand juicer, aka citrus squeezer. That is really the only juicer you need. However, if you’re a cocktail bar, frequently throwing large gatsby-esque cocktail parties or making orange juice every morning, you'll probably want a higher capacity juicer. In either case, the basic approach will still be more or less the same. You can find more about the different types of juicers available on the Juicer page.
Important! Set up your Station
A juicing station should run like an assembly line, with an area for the citrus, an area for cutting, an area for juicing, and a trash can or compost bin nearby for discarded citrus shells. As always, make sure to have some paper or kitchen towels nearby to cleanup inevitable drips and drops. For a juice container, a basic measuring cup like a pyrex, or a small bowl with a pour spout is ideal.
Strained Juice is Best
I strongly recommend straining the pulp and seeds out of your juice. It will give your cocktail a much better appearance and texture. As I like to say, "I love grovestand orange juice, but not grovestand daiquiris." Instead of straining the juice afterwards, which adds another step, place small strainer over the container you’re juicing into, which will strain the juice as you go. If it clogs up with pulp, use a spoon to scrape the bottom of the strainer to get things moving. Of course, if you’re planning to fine strain your cocktail, strained juice won’t matter as much. Though the pulp will clog up the fine strainer and slow things down.
Juice Only What you Need
The only cons to making fresh juice are the added labor and short shelf life; lemon and lime juice will only keep a couple days at best. To minimize these drawbacks, only make as much juice as you need. In general, you’ll get 1-2 cocktails per lemon or lime, depending on their size and ripeness. So if you’re making a couple rounds for two people you’ll probably only need 3 pieces of fruit or so, and can make juice as you go. You even can get away with juicing right into the jigger.
Position - Place the cut citrus in the juicer cut side down, so the juice flows directly through the holes in the bottom.
Cut citrus - Cut the across the poles, meaning in between the nubs at the end, not through them. If you're juicing a lot of fruit, I recommend cutting all the citrus first. It’s quicker than picking up and putting down the knife over and over.
Make That Juice!
From here, it’s pretty self explanatory.
Squeeze - Bring the handles together to extract the juice. Squeeze slowly and gently. If you’re too aggressive juice will spray haphazardly out of the edges and a feeling of cocktail chaos will start to creep in.
But Not too Hard - You don't have to clamp down to leech out every last drop of juice. Eventually that will extract bitter oils from the rind.
Discard and Repeat - Tossing out each piece of fruit after it’s juiced is much better than having it pile up on the counter.
Then Clean Up! - Once you’re done juicing, it's a good opportunity wipe up and rinse your tools, or at least put them in the sink, before you move on to making the drink. Clean = Fast.
Shelf Life and Storing Juice
As mentioned above, fresh juice does not keep very long - especially lime juice - which is why juicing only what you need that day is best. Unfortunately you can’t make juice for the week in one sitting (you can with simple syrup though!). However, if you do have leftover juice it can be stored in the refrigerator in a closed container, the fuller the better. The more space there is for air, the quicker the juice will oxidize.
Oxidized juice isn’t really dangerous mind you, it just isn't as tasty. Each citrus changes a little differently. Oxidized lemon and lime juice lose their fresh vibrancy in a day or two and gain an “off” flavor that some describe as tasting like pennies. Orange juice tends to keep a bit longer, but it’s best flavors dissipate quicker than any of the juices. This is why mimosas with seconds old OJ are so incredible. Grapefruit keeps the longest, and then eventually the bitterness starts to increase.
Here is the relative shelf life of the various types of fresh citrus juice in my experience. But don't take these stats for granted. The less air there is in the container, the longer you may be able to stretch it. You’ll be surprised how long something can keep when it's well stored. When in doubt, always taste the juice, and see for yourself.
Lime juice - 1-2 days
Lemon juice - 2 days
Orange juice 2-3 days
Grapefruit juice 3-4 days
When is Juice Best?
In conventional thinking, the fresher the juice, the better. Though, there have been some interesting experiments, pioneered by the one and only Dave Arnold, that have indicated lemon and lime juice may actually taste slightly better a few hours after they’ve been juiced. The theory is some enzymes alter the flavor to be mellower and less sharp.
But while this is certainly a very intriguing idea, I wouldn’t go to great lengths to age your juice for optimal flavor. My general rule is: if your juice was made that day (and in some cases the day before) your cocktail will be tasty.
Juicing into the Jigger
If you're only juicing a few pieces of citrus at home you can forego the whole station set up and juice right into the jigger. Granted, it’s a small target and you may encounter a little more spillage than usual, but there’s less to clean up over all. This works best with the Oxo angled jigger, which isn’t as narrow as a typical double-sided jigger. This is what I do when I’m making cocktails for my wife and me at home.
Increasing Juice Yield
There are some tricks often used to increase the amount of juice you get from a piece of citrus. The common ones are rolling them on the counter and warming them up, say in the microwave. When I was a barback at Clover Club I used to soak the citrus in a hot water before I juiced them because I thought cold fruit was stingy.
However, these methods don’t appear to be the silver bullet we may have thought. Jeffrey Morganthaler does an experiment in his book and the cold, unrolled fruit actually ended up yielding the most juice - albeit by a small margin. I’ve done some spontaneous experiments of my own which seem to support his outcome. So, it appears that it doesn’t matter what you do. What you get is what you get. However, I do think warmer fruit is easier to juice because gives less resistance.
Juicing Oranges and Grapefruits
These larger fruits don’t fit in the standard citrus squeezer. True, some are sized to fit oranges, but only the smaller juice oranges. When you need to make orange or grapefruit juice you’ve got three options:
If you need a large quantity of orange or grapefruit juice the best option is easily a high capacity juicer, and really the only option for a bar. But if you only need a small quantity, say for a round of Brown Derbies, there are a few other workaround options:
1. Cut Them into Smaller Pieces - Small enough to fit in a citrus squeezer. This usually means cutting them into eighths, or each half into quarters. Because these pieces are abnormally shaped, the holes in the juicer can get clogged. So I’ve found it’s best to start juicing as usual, and then tilt the juicer sideways, so the juice flows out the side.
2. Use a Citrus Reamer - While I don't recommend them for general juicing, reamers work with citrus of all sizes, so they can be helpful with orange and grapefruits.
3. Squeeze by Hand! - It may seem crude but this one may be the most effective. It’s much quicker than juicing a bunch of individual pieces. Sure, it’s a little messy and you don't get every drop of juice, but since these fruits are so big, one piece will often get you enough for a few drinks.
Reducing Hand Juicer Fatigue
Making drinks for a group is what puts many people off making fresh citrus juice, which is understandable. If you’re prepping cocktails for a group of 6 and plan on 3 rounds of per person - a nice cocktail party average - that’s 18 drinks and about 2 cups of juice (let’s say you’re making daiquiris, hopefully I’m invited). So you'll need 12-16 limes which means once they’re split you’ll be squeezing the juicer 24-32 times! That's a lot to ask of your hands and forearms.
If this happens to you, don't reach for the little plastic lime (anything but that!), try this method instead. It'll divert some of the workload to your upper arms, which are better equipped to handle the added strain.
Grip each handle in a separate hand. As opposed to grabbing around with both hands.
Slowly bring your hands together to begin juicing.
Once the handles are close enough, wrap both hands around and squeeze the rest of the way.
How Much Juice Do You Get?
How much juice a piece of citrus yields depends mostly on its size. As you’ve no doubt noticed at the grocery store, sometimes grapefruits are the size of your fist, other times they’re practically big as your head. Below is an average range of how much juice you can expect from the major types of citrus fruits, though there will no doubt be extremes on either end. Keep in mind these quantities are of strained juice, which I always recommend doing. Straining will generally reduce a juice’s total volume by 5-10%. Which is negligible is small quantities, but quite noticeable in larger ones.
Lemons: 1¼ - 1¾ oz
Limes: ¾ - 1¼ oz
Juice Orange: 1½ - 2 oz
Navel Orange: 3½ - 4½ oz
Small: 3½ - 4½ oz
Large: 5-7 oz
Hand and Juicer Size Factor
Whether you need this method will depend somewhat on how big your hands are. For example, I have giant gorilla sized mitts for hands, so I can usually grip both juicer handles at once and still have plenty of leverage. But people with hands of a more reasonable size won't be able to reach that far.
It also depends on what juicer you're using. With smaller juicers, the handles aren't spread as far apart so they are easier to get your hands around (but smaller juicers may not fit larger fruit, like those baseball-sized lemons you sometimes see at the grocery store). So take it all on a case-by-case basis. Just do whatever you need to do to make that juice!