Soda doesn't have much of a reputation as a good-for-you drink, but that's because of all the preservatives, dyes, and added sugar that food companies inject into that liquid candy they house in wasteful cans and plastic bottles.
What most people don't realize is how easy it is to make your own—and avoid the chemicals. As long as you have carbonated water, some sweetened syrup, and a few creative flavorings, you can whip up a variety of sodas to your heart's content.
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#1: Carbonated water. Store-bought seltzer is the easiest way to get carbonated water, but if you're looking for a way to cut down on packaging, invest in a soda maker. I've had a SodaStream Fountain Jet carbonator for years, and it is still going strong. They cost about $80 for models that use plastic bottles, and $200 for models that use glass. Soda siphons, those cocktail siphons you see in old movies, take up a little less space and cost around $80 as well, and can be purchased in stainless steel or glass.
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Both have their pros and cons. SodaStreams are less wasteful overall. The carbon dioxide tanks that carbonate your water can be sent back to the company and refilled, whereas siphons use disposable chargers that are good for just one bottle at a time. But if you plan on making just one or two glasses of soda at a time, siphons hold their fizz a little longer. SodaStream bottles are similar to standard liter-sized soda bottles and need to be polished off in a few days before they go flat.
#2: Simple syrup. The benefit of making your own soda is that you can control how much sugar goes into a glass, so you don't wind up with those sickly sweet commercial concoctions. And sweetener choice is up to you. Here are three basic formulations:
Sugar Simple Syrup
1 cup organic granulated sugar
1 cup water
Combine the ingredients in a small saucepan and simmer, stirring frequently, until all the sugar has dissolved.
Honey Simple Syrup
7/8 cup organic honey (select a mild-flavored type such as wildflower)
1 1/8 cups water
Combine the ingredients in a small saucepan and simmer, stirring frequently, until all the honey has dissolved.
Stevia Simple Syrup
Stevia is a natural zero-caloric sweetener made from a plant and comes in powders or in liquid extracts. Flavor and sweetness vary from product to product. I'm partial to the powdered version of NOW Better Stevia, but you may need to taste a few for yourself and see which you like. Since the sweetness varies by brand, use this recipe as a starting point and adjust as needed.
4 teaspoons stevia extract (liquid or powdered)
2 cups water
Combine and stir to dissolve.
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#3: Flavorings. This is the fun part—coming up with your own unique soda flavors. The best way to add flavorings is to add them to your simple syrup while it's simmering, then straining out any fruit, herbs, or spices you use. Here are a few ideas to start:
Fruit sodas are wonderfully refreshing and so suitable for summer. Add 1 cup chopped fresh fruit, such as peaches or raspberries, to a completed batch of simple syrup. For even more flavor, use fruit juice instead of water to make your syrup. Select the tastiest, juiciest fruit you can find. Simmer for about five to 10 minutes until the fruit is soft and faded looking, using a potato masher or large spoon to smash the fruit apart to release as much flavor as possible.
Ginger ale is a classic flavor, but many other herbs (rosemary, basil), spices (cinnamon), and teas (green tea, red zinger) also make exciting flavors. Add about ½ cup minced fresh leaves or about ¼ cup dried leaves or grated ginger root. You can even add cocoa powder to your simple syrup, about ¼ cup, for a Yoohoo doppelganger. Simmer for about 10 minutes, using a large spoon to smash and muddle the leaves to release as much flavor as possible.
Hit the baking aisle of your grocery store and look for tasty flavor extracts, such as vanilla for a cream soda, and add 1 teaspoon to a finished batch of simple syrup.
Single ingredient flavors are great, but why be boring? Mix and match to find sodas to go with any meal. Here are a few ideas to get your creative juices flowing:
• ginger + vanilla
• strawberry + basil
• blueberry + lavender
• cocoa + hot pepper (just a little)
• banana + almond
• cardamom + rose (use rose petals or rose water to make the syrup)
• mango + chai green tea.
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Putting It All Together
Strain any fruits, leaves, or spices out of your simple syrup after it's finished, and let it cool in your refrigerator before adding it to your carbonated water.
Pour 2 to 3 ounces cold flavored syrup into a 12-ounce glass, top off with cold soda water, and enjoy! Any leftover flavored syrup you may have can be stored for up to a month in your refrigerator.