Frozen Margarita

Everyone loves that perfect – almost creamy – texture of the frozen margarita that’s extruded from the machine at the local Mexican restaurant. However, it can be cloyingly sweet and is often made with poor quality tequila that – after having a few – doesn’t make for a rosy tomorrow. You’re the boss of the sweetness and alcohol quality when you make ‘em at home, but getting that perfect mouth feel with your kitchen blender has proven next to impossible – until now.

To me, the perfect frozen margarita would mimic the mouth feel from those professional margarita machines but actually taste like a margarita should – balancing the saltiness from salt and tequila (which doesn’t actually have salt but your tastebuds perceive it as salty), the sweetness from orange liqueur such as Cointreau or triple sec, and the acidity or tartness from fresh squeezed limes.

My go-to recipe for the perfectly balanced margarita on the rocks is quite simple and straightforward.

Basic Margarita on the Rocks

Ingredients (for one drink):

– 2 oz decent quality tequila blanco (I prefer Casa Amigos or Patron Silver)
– 1 oz Cointreau
– ¾ oz freshly squeezed and strained lime juice
– Pinch of salt or 2-3 drops of saline

Some of my friends prefer their margarita a bit sweeter so, for them, I add ¼ to ½  oz agave syrup (see reader notes below) or simple syrup.

Shake the above with ice, strain into a glass with fresh rocks (don’t just toss the ice from your shaker into the glass), and – presto – an amazing margarita on the rocks.

If you’d like, of course, you can salt the rim of your glass. But with this recipe, I generally don’t because the extra salt from the rim tends to make it too salty and throw it off balance. (If you do insist on salting the rim, nix the saline in the recipe and consider adding a bit more lime juice. Acid – not sugar – is the balancing ingredient to things that are too salty.)

Now that you’ve got a respectable margarita on the rocks in hand, it’s time to turn our attention back to the frozen variant. What’s the secret? The key is to avoid the urge to throw a bunch of ice in a blender with these ingredients or worse – gulp – that fluorescent margarita mix you find at the grocery store. Instead, we’ll throw the ingredients in the freezer with some water and added sugar (in this case simple syrup) and then blend those.

Frozen Margarita at Home

Ingredients (for two drinks):

– 4 oz decent quality tequila blanco (you can go cheap, but it needs to have a clean taste)
– 7 oz filtered water
– 2 oz Cointreau
– 2 oz lime juice
– 1 oz simple syrup, agave syrup, or honey syrup (see reader notes below)
– Pinch of salt or 4-6 drops saline

  1. Mix all ingredients in a zip-top bag or freezer-friendly container that seals.I prefer a zip-top bag because you can get the air out which will keep your ingredients fresher.
  1. Freeze mixture overnight.
    Put the mixture into the coldest part of your freezer – not the door. Consider setting the temp of your freezer to one of the coldest settings. If your freezer is too warm, you’ll end up with a slushy mess. You shouldn’t keep your freezer at a warm setting anyway – frozen foods do much better (last longer, less freezer burn) in a deep chill. Trust me on this one.
  2. Put the ingredients in your blender and blend on high speed until smooth (20-30 seconds or less).The key here is not to over-blend – the friction from your blender blades will warm up the mixture and make it a soupy melted mess – but not to under-blend because we want it to be silky smooth with no ice chunks. I’ve also found it’s easier to control the texture when making larger batches so if you have friends, now’s the time to think of inviting them over.If you’ve barely blended and it’s turning into a soupy mess, it’s probably because your freezer isn’t cold enough or you didn’t leave it in there long enough. Not to worry, just throw the ingredients back into the freezer and try again in a few hours. In the meantime, you might as well enjoy another margarita on the rocks.
  3. Pour into the glass of your choice and enjoy. It’s that simple!

If you’re satisfied with your drink, require no more knowledge, and are feeling quite mellow from all the drinks you just downed – no hard feelings. But if you’ve got questions or are curious to learn more, read on…

Why does the frozen version of the recipe have water added to it?

When you mix a drink with ice in a shaker, the ice melts as the drink cools and dilutes the drink. When we throw everything in the freezer, we miss the dilution step and wouldn’t have a well balanced drink unless we account for it. It also wouldn’t freeze too well because the freezing point of the mixture would be too low (we need the drink to be no more than about 15% alcohol to get it to freeze correctly in the freezer). So we add water. I’ve tried this recipe without the added water (I’d like to say it was on purpose) – the tequila was way to overpowering (what most people would describe as the being too strong) and the texture was a sloshy mess.

Why did you add sugar to the frozen version of the recipe?

Generally speaking, as the temperature of sweet foods decreases, we perceive it as tasting less sweet. If you don’t believe me, take a scoop of ice cream, pop it in the microwave until it’s a warm soup, and then taste it head-to-head with its frozen cousin. Since we’re serving the frozen margarita at a much lower temperature than the shaken version, we’ve added additional sugar to better balance the sweetness.

Why is your on-the-rocks recipe for a single drink and your frozen recipe is for two drinks?

If you try to put a single serving of the frozen ingredients into the average blender, there’s not enough volume to properly hit the blender blades. So make this drink in batches of two or more.

Why did you say it’s okay to use the cheap tequila on the frozen version but not in the on-the-rocks version?

Similar to the note on sugar at lower temperatures above, it’s harder to discern the subtle flavors of a very high quality tequila at the lower temperature of the frozen drink. So save your money and buy something that’s affordable. But keep in mind that anything you wouldn’t consider drinking on the rocks shouldn’t be consumed in your frozen margarita either. Top shelf isn’t necessary but truly bottom shelf is unpleasurable.

How did you get the texture so smooth? What’s going on here?

The creamy mouthfeel is due to two factors – air in the mixture and tiny ice crystals. Your blender naturally aerates the mixture, though it would aerate the mixture if we just threw a bunch of alcohol and ice cubes into a blender too. In this case, the difference between this recipe and your average “add ice cubes to liquid” method comes from the fact that we’ve left the alcohol mixture in the freezer and blended that. Pure ethanol has a freezing point of about -114 degrees C (-173 degrees F). Alongside the other ingredients which in this case are mostly made of sugar, water, and citric acid, the freezing point is significantly higher, but still – in totality – lower than the temperature of your freezer. As the mixture sits in the freezer the molecules start to freeze very slowly, forming tiny ice crystals and by the time its been sitting there overnight, you get a smooth slushy mixture that’s partially frozen like a 7-11 slurpee. It’s also easier to blend this stuff into a smooth mixture because it’s more uniform in both temperature and viscosity than the old “ice in the blender with some booze” method which always ends up being a bunch of ice chunks mixed with a plethora of diluted alcohol.

Can I make other frozen drinks this way?

Of course! This recipe was actually inspired by Dave Arnold’s award-winning cocktail manifesto, Liquid Intelligence, which provides a recipe using a similar method for a frozen daiquiri as well as two of my favorites he calls Ebony and Ivory which uses sweet red/rose vermouth and blanco/white sweet vermouth.

What about that Margaritaville frozen margarita maker I can get for 20% off at Bed Bath and Beyond?

I’m embarrassed to say that I own one of those. I used to use it every week from Memorial Day to Labor Day before I discovered the method I outline above. It makes great shaved ice (I still use it for snow cones), but my problems always were (1) it creates shaved ice that’s better than cubes in a blender but still not as smooth as a restaurant frozen margarita and (2) if you’re using real ingredients (not the off the shelf margarita mix) you tend to end up with a very diluted drink because of the ice to ingredient ratio. And the off the shelf margarita mix is way off balance with the sweetness.

Reader Notes:

  • Saline, a saltwater solution, is great to have on hand for any cocktail aficionado. In small quantities (a few drops), it enhances the flavors without adding a salty taste. And it’s super easy to make – just mix 20% salt and 80% water by weight (e.g. 20g table salt with 80g water), shake until the salt is dissolved and you’re done. I keep mine in a dropper for easy dispensing (and it looks impressive, too). Thanks, Dave Arnold, for the idea on this front.
  • Simple syrup can be made by mixing 50% sugar and 50% water by weight. If you’re in a rush, heat the mixture until the sugar dissolves in the water. If you’ve got time, there’s no need to heat the mixture. If left at room temperature and shaken every once in a while, the sugar will dissolve on its own.
  • Agave and honey can be used in place of simple syrup, however both must be diluted to make the sugar content equal by volume to simple syrup (i.e. so the amount of sweetness per ounce is equal). They both will change the sweet notes in slightly different ways – agave has a sweetness that doesn’t linger on the palette as long as sugar and honey usually adds floral notes that can vary widely depending on what type of honey you use. For agave syrup mix 2/3 agave and 1/3 water by weight (e.g. 66g agave and 33g water). For honey syrup mix 40% water to 60% honey (e.g. 40g water to 60g honey).
  • Many people insist you always need to use fresh lime juice in a margarita. Here’s a great article debunking that theory.

 

By Ross Goldenberg
June, 2018

©2018 Ross A. Goldenberg