Spice Hunting: 5 Tips to Brewing a Better Mulled Cider

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

[Photographs and video: Vicky Wasik]

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 Crock-Pot 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 make 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

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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 for mulling any of them.

Cider-specific mulling spices are common, but they're often expensive, with underpowered (or, worse, overwrought) flavors. These kits are frequently 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

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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 it brings 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, to echo the faint touch of licorice in some apple varieties.

Customize your blend however you like, but stay true to your subject. Fond of the apples' tartness? Some lemon zest will do you right. 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 long enough to extract 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

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I also 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, whether it's brandy, rum, bourbon, or amaro. We recommend that you start with a tablespoon, tasting the cider and adding more if needed—you may need more or less depending on the sweetness of your cider, the alcohol you choose to include, and how schlockered you'd like to get.

A Note on Mulling

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Cider can be mulled at a low temperature for a long time or at a simmer for about an hour, depending on your preference.

If you have the time to mull your cider low and slow, it will stay clear and bright, while becoming infused with the spices—and make your home smell pretty great, too. This can take about four hours; an electric slow cooker is one of the best tools for the job (a rare claim for slow cookers, which we otherwise find pretty useless). You can forget about the cider for hours while it stews away at well below a simmer. No Crock-Pot? 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.

If you need cider now, simmering at a higher temperature for 30 minutes to an hour can do the trick. The only downside is that the extra heat can make the cider cloudy and lead to some separation. (This is particularly true with unpasteurized apple ciders.) It won't affect the taste, but if you prefer, just before serving, skim away any scum that has accumulated using a slotted spoon or ladle.

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