Spice Hunting

Your guide to the world of herbs and spices—how to spot them, where to get them, and how to cook with them

Spice Hunting: 5 Tips to Brewing a Better Mulled Cider

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[Photographs: Max Falkowitz]

It became Fall in the Northeast this week, and I didn't have to think twice before setting some squash to roast and breaking out the crockpot for some mulled cider. The aroma of apple and spice is torture for my neighbors, but when dinner guests come by, they take a whiff at the door and all their troubles melt away. Mulling apple cider is one of those domestic activities that makes a house (or a low-rent New York apartment) a home. Here are my five tips to building a better brew.

1. Start with the Good Stuff

Great mulled cider begins with great cider. My favorite cider for mulling is cloudy with good body (which thins out just right when heated). It should smell and taste rich and sweet, like an apple pie cooling in the farmhouse of an apple orchard, with just enough acidity to balance out the sweetness. Overly tart ciders can be used for mulling, but may need a touch of added sugar to balance out the acidity and bring out the flavor of the spices. Which brings me to...

2. Toss the Mulling Spices

To me, great cider mulling demands considered spicing. And considered spicing doesn't come from a jar of "mulling spice." Does apple cider taste like red wine or hard liquor? Of course not. So you don't want something marketed as an all-purpose mulling blend; it's probably not well formulated to mulling any of them.

Cider-specific mulling spices are common, but they're often expensive, with underpowered (or worse, overwrought) flavors. These kits are frequent duds, as fresh spices are rarely on the priority list of manufacturers. Even if they smell nice in the package, the spices are often dull on the palate. You're better off assembling your own kit from spices you probably already have on hand.

3. Use Apple-Friendly Spices

I don't want my mulled cider tasting like pumpkin pie or cinnamon juice. Each and every ingredient in my mulled cider is there for one reason and one reason only: because they bring out the natural flavors of apples. Here's my spice lineup:

  • Cinnamon, for sweetness and spice
  • Clove, to restore some of the depth and body thinned out by mulling
  • Cardamom, for its floral perfume (Never had it with apples? Trust the Scandinavians here.)
  • Coriander, for its musky-citrus flavor
  • Star anise, for the faint touch of licorice in some apple varieties

Customize your blend however you like, but stay true to your subject. Fond of their tartness? Some lemon zest would do you well. Like their spicy kick? Add a teaspoon of grated ginger. Just keep it about the apples, and remember you aren't baking spice cake.

4. Toast Your Spices, and Keep Them Whole

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I don't like to grind my mulling spices. For one, filtering out the ground bits is a pain. But more importantly, cider steeps for hours, which is plenty of time to leech flavor from whole spices. I find that grinding spices provides bolder flavors in less time, but at the expense of nuance. Cardamom and coriander, for example, just taste more like themselves when left whole. I do toast my spices first to excite their essential oils. Since cider mulls at a low temperature, toasting is essential to extract the full flavor from the spices.

5. Add Some Hooch

I don't like my mulled cider too boozy (that's another drink altogether), but a nip of alcohol added shortly before service makes the spicy, fruity aromas you've worked so hard to develop come out all the more. My European Jewish roots lead me naturally to Slivovitz, a type of plum brandy, which marries the cider's flavors well. But use whatever apple-friendly liquor you've got. A tablespoon is all you need.

A Note on Hardware

If you have an electric slow cooker, that's the best tool for the job. You can forget about the cider for hours while it stews away well below a simmer. No crockpot? Use the lowest flame on a stove that you can, and if that's still too hot, put your mulling pot in a heavy skillet on the burner to act as a heat diffuser.

Now you've got the makings of some great mulled cider. Any mullers out there? We'd love to hear your tips as well.

Get the recipe »

About the author: Max Falkowitz is a proud native of Queens, New York. He'll do just about anything for a good cup of tea and enjoys long walks down the aisles of Chinese groceries. He is known to make ice cream on occasion. You can follow his exotic spice- and ice cream-based ramblings on Twitter.

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