For the Most Flavorful Piña Colada, Freeze Everything

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

I would like to offer a few basic facts about myself:

  • I sometimes like getting caught in the rain...when it's warm.
  • I am not into yoga (though I used to be).
  • I'm pretty sure I have half a brain. Maybe even a little more.
  • Making love at midnight? My schedule is flexible, for sure.
  • And yes, I do indeed like piña coladas. At least, I like good ones.

These are important answers to important life questions. What's not answered though is how to make a good piña colada. It's tricky for a couple reasons. The first is that piña coladas require ingredients that are highly variable in quality, which means it's difficult to create a recipe that yields a consistent result. The second is that it's a frozen drink, and all frozen drinks share a similar problem: How do you chill the drink down with enough ice to make it slushy without overly diluting it in the process?

Most recipes solve the first problem in the most un-delicious of ways, calling for canned ingredients like pineapple juice and Coco Lopez, which, while not great in the flavor department, are extremely consistent. They may not make the best piña colada, but they'll make a reliably okay one.

I've been playing with solutions to this, and have come up with some answers, which I'll review on an ingredient-by-ingredient basis.

The Rum

Let's start with the booze. I'll be honest—this is the component that interests me the least. Not because I don't care about the rum, but because I think most of us at home are going to make the drink within the limitations of our home bar.

If you look at some of the piña colada recipes from top bartenders, you'll often notice that they like to blend specific rums in an effort to nail their most perfect version of the drink. But bartenders have the luxury of having access to multiple bottles of the stuff at once. At home, we use what we've got, restock when we can, and that's it. Recipes that call for blending three different rums may work at a fancy cocktail bar, but it's just not a realistic option for the rest of us.

My feeling is that you can make a good piña colada with many kinds of rum, whether it's white, aged, or some combination; each brings its own personality to the party. Use whatever you have—I promise you'll like it. One thing that is important: add enough so you can taste it. I like a roughly 2.5-ounce pour for a single serving of the drink.

The Pineapple

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Pineapple is, I think, one of the trickier elements of a piña colada, because while fresh juice and/or fruit is usually better, pineapples can vary wildly in terms of their ripeness, sweetness, and acidity. If you make the drink with fully fresh fruit, you're more likely to have to tinker with other components like the sugar and lime juice to dial in on the perfect balance of sweet and tart. That can be tricky for a lot of folks at home, since it requires making on-the-spot adjustments—sometimes drastic ones if the pineapple is a dud—with each new batch. No wonder most recipes just call for a can of Dole.

I experimented with a handful of options, including using only fresh pineapple, canned pineapple juice, and canned pineapple chunks, both alone and in combination with each other.

My final recipe gives a couple options: fresh pineapple chunks, or canned pineapple chunks along with some of their juices.

When ripe, the fresh pineapple is the best tasting, so if you can get your hands on a truly ripe specimen, that's the way to go. If you can't, I found that the chunks of canned pineapple deliver a better pineapple flavor than canned juice alone.

The Coconut

There's a legitimate argument to be made for Coco Lopez, the canned, ultra-sweet coconut cream. Sure, it tastes like tanning oil, but it's practically become the drink's calling card. There's real nostalgia associated with that. But in the end, as much as I can appreciate and often enjoy what it brings to a piña colada, it tastes like tanning oil. I want my recipe to taste like coconut. Real coconut.

I suppose I could have insisted on an elaborate sub-recipe for turning a fresh coconut into coconut puree, but piña coladas are supposed to be fun, not work. I'll leave the homemade purees to the bartenders who have time to do that. Far easier is to open a can of unsweetened coconut cream, which is thicker and more concentrated than coconut milk.

The Ice

Ice is a challenging but necessary ingredient in any frozen drink because the more you add, the colder and slushier the drink gets, but it also gets more diluted. Add too little, and your piña colada is cold but not frozen. Add too much and your drink is frozen, but its taste pales in comparison to what it could be, like a memory of a trip to Puerto Rico you took ten years ago compared to being on the island in the flesh. It can be a frustratingly difficult balance to strike, and at times it feels like there is no sweet spot.

But then I had an idea: What if I freeze my pineapple chunks and everything else—the rum, the coconut cream, the additional splashes of lime juice and sugar—then cut down on the ice? I could get an incredibly slushy, full-on tropically flavored drink without having to add as much water in the form of ice.

It's as simple as shoving a bottle of rum in the freezer, and pre-batching the rest of the ingredients and putting them in to freeze as well. Because of its high alcohol content the rum won't freeze, but it will be cold enough that it won't warm the other components up when you mix everything together. Combined with the fiber in the chunks of actual pineapple (as opposed to just plain juice), the result is a much thicker and slushier piña colada.

The rest is simple: throw it all in a blender, pour it into a glass, and... don't forget the little paper umbrella. You really do need one of those.

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