Cocktails 101: How to Shake a Cocktail

[Video: Serious Eats. Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

Shaking is hands down the most efficient way to simultaneously chill and dilute a cocktail—assuming you do it properly, that is. A good shake will cause the ice to rattle around violently in the shaker, cooling the surrounding liquid as it breaks down and releases water into the drink. Then again, shaking also causes drinks to foam up, which sometimes results in a cocktail that doesn't look so stunning.

So when should you get shaking? Our basic rule of thumb is to shake any drink that contains juice, dairy, or eggs. These ingredients generally look better in a glass and have a more pleasing texture when they're foamy. Just think of how satisfying whipped cream and meringue taste and feel.

Beginners can get nervous about whether they're using a proper shaking technique, but the truth is, it's an easy thing to master if you follow some simple steps. And, unlike stirring, shaking allows you to express personal style and wit, which are always fun guests at a cocktail party.

What You'll Need

Before we get into the step-by-step, there are a few basic items you'll want to have on-hand.

1. A Cocktail Shaker

There are two common types of cocktail shakers. The first, known as a cobbler, is the frequently gifted three-piece style you'll see in most housewares stores. But here's the thing: They're best avoided. The metal-on-metal construction means that the pieces seize up when they're cold, which makes them difficult to open for cleaning or reuse. Also, the strainer design leads to slow strains, and, if you have any muddled ingredients in the drink, some bits of leaves might slip through the big strainer holes and out into your drink.

A Boston shaker, on the other hand, consists of a shaking tin and a mixing glass. They open easily, they're relatively inexpensive, and even if the mixing glass breaks, you can replace it for cheap. Using a Boston does require you to have a separate strainer, but that means you can choose a strainer that'll do the job well.

What about those all-metal Boston shakers, like the one featured in our video above? Generally made of one larger tin and one smaller tin, they're increasingly popular with pro bartenders. They're a great tool for temperature control, but if you're just a beginner, you may want to stick with a transparent glass for now. That's because by building your cocktail in the mixing glass and then sealing the tin to the top of it, you can watch what you're doing as you add ingredients to the glass. Using an all-tin shaker denies you the transparency of glass, and might make you more prone to mistakes.

2. A Cocktail Strainer

You gotta get that cocktail out of the shaker and into your glass—preferably without the muddled bits and the ice you've used to dilute the drink. So, assuming you're taking our advice and steering clear of the cobbler, you'll need a strainer to pair with your Boston shaker.

As with shakers, there are a couple of commonplace types of strainers. The first is known as a julep strainer, and it has a perforated, bowl-shaped cup attached to a handle. By and large, though, we prefer the Hawthorne strainer, which consists of a flat disk affixed to a coiled spring. The spring traps large chunks or slivers of ice and other solid ingredients, such as muddled fruit or mint leaves. The spring also allows you to control the flow of liquid from the shaker, and the strainer does a generally excellent job of keeping small ice chips, citrus pulp, and particles of muddled ingredients in the shaker, where they belong.

3. The Ingredients for Your Cocktail

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Not quite sure what drink to make? You're in luck. We have hundreds of cocktail recipes to help you get started.

4. Ice Cubes

Ice might sound like the most obvious of ingredients, but it merits a bit more conversation. We previously thought that the one-inch Tovolo ice cubes we use for stirring drinks were also the best choice for shaking. I have since seen the light. The Death & Co book suggests using larger cubes for shaking. At D & Co, the bartenders carve a large block of ice down into two-inch cubes, but you can achieve the same effect at home by using the larger Tovolo King Cube mold. D & Co's rationale is that using larger cubes (with less surface area compared to mass) allows you to shake a drink for longer before it reaches proper dilution. Because these large cubes break apart very slowly, it's hard to go wrong and over-dilute the cocktail. The resulting drink will be cold and well aerated.

Well aerated.... what does that mean? When you shake a drink, you introduce air bubbles. The larger the cube, the smaller the bubbles it produces, which leads to a finer texture. Texture, Jeffrey Morgenthaler writes in The Bar Book, is "the difference between a good cocktail and a great cocktail, particularly in juice-forward cocktails and definitely in drinks that contain dairy."

The professionals differ on one important point beyond this. D & Co bartenders shake with the two large cubes, but they shake for a long time to get the dilution right. Dave Arnold, in Liquid Intelligence, advocates another approach: Use one large cube and several smaller cubes. The large cube will provide aeration and texture; the small cubes will provide dilution.

Let's Shake!

Now for the fun part. Here we go:

1. Chill your serving glass. You can store it for a short time in the freezer or a longer time in the fridge, or you can fill it with a mix of ice and water and set it aside for five minutes, or you can do that extra-quick frozen-vodka trick.

2. Measure your ingredients. Using a jigger (or a liquid-measuring cup), pour your ingredients into the mixing glass or smaller tin. If your recipe calls for muddling, now's the time to do that, too.

3. Add the ice. If you have a diverse collection of ice cube trays, go ahead and add two large (two-inch) cubes, and follow up with some smaller (one-inch) cubes as well. If you don't have any large (or even square) cubes, worry not. Just fill the shaker about three-quarters of the way with regular ol' ice. Your drink may not be professional-quality, but it'll taste just fine.

4. Seal the shaker. To close the shaker so that it doesn't leak when you're shaking, you need to ensure a tight seal. Place the empty metal mixing tin over the top of the filled shaker at a slight angle. Using the heel of your hand, tap sharply against the base of the tin. You don't need to hit the tin hard, just firmly. If you've sealed your shaker properly, you should be able to pick the entire contraption up from your counter or table just by lifting the tin. If you lift the top tin and the base stays on the table, you don't have a seal.

5. Assume the position. Hold the shaker away from your guests, in your dominant hand over your shoulder. If anything leaks, it will leak away from your guests and behind you, instead of spraying your guests in the face.

6. Shake! Shake vigorously for at least 15 seconds. You want to break up the ice and mix everything thoroughly. A short, wimpy shake will not achieve this. You don't need to go crazy, though. You should hear the ice rattling around in the shaker, striking the sides, top, and bottom. Let the shaker tell you how vigorous is vigorous enough.

7. Unseal the shaker. To break the seal when you're done shaking, hold the contraption in your nondominant hand and look at it carefully. On the inner part of the curve, the two pieces are snuggled up together, like two birds of a feather should be. On the outer part of the curve, there's a wider gap between them. What you're looking for is the spot where the two just start to separate, as in the picture below:

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This is where you'll aim to hit the thing with the heel of your dominant hand to break it apart. Again, you don't need to hit it hard; just firmly, right where the gap is starting to form.

8. Pour. Remove the mixing glass (if you're using one) and set it aside, leaving the cocktail and ice in the tin. Meanwhile, set up your serving glasses, add fresh ice if it's called for, and strain the shaken cocktail right in. Garnish away and drink it on down.

Cheers!

For more cocktail-making techniques, pay a visit to our complete guide to making cocktails at home.