Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

We’ve long been told we should be drinking at least 8 glasses of water a day. While that may not be literally true, there’s no question it’s important to stay hydrated, which is something that I, for one, don’t always find easy. Plain water can sometimes be…a little boring. Infusing water with a few fresh ingredients, and using a simple muddling technique, can elevate the drink and inspire sip after sip.

Making flavored water is, of course, not a new idea. There are many deeply flavorful hydrating drinks from around the world such as agua frescas and horchatas from Mexico and Central America, Melon from the Philippines, Jamaican Sorrel Drink, and teas and other herbal decoctions, to name just a few. These recipes from around the world have their own histories and techniques that often blend fruits, grains, spices, dried leaves or herbs, and/or additional sweeteners together with water to create soothing hot and refreshing cold drinks.

Since my own water-flavoring approach isn’t directly tied to any one tradition, it helps to be clear about what my goals are here: I want infused water that has a delicate and well-rounded flavor, and that is bright, mildly fruity, and with an herbaceous backbone. Put another way, I want water that I would be excited to drink, but is still recognizable as water at its core.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

The Key Techniques for Fresh and Flavorful Infused Waters

I needed to figure out a reliable method for achieving infused waters that efficiently extracted the fresh flavors of fruits and herbs, with no off notes from ingredients that had been soaking for too long. After a few rounds of tests, I quickly realized there’s more to a flavored water than simply adding a random amount of produce to plain old water, stirring it together, and serving. When I tried this, the water initially lacked flavor, but then turned bitter after sitting for too long.

To find the best flavor infusing technique, it’s first important to learn why water itself is a great medium for extracting flavor. Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking discusses how water forms hydrogen bonds not only with itself, but with other substances that have at least some electrical polarity—some unevenness in the molecular distribution of positive and negative electrical charges.

In the world of major food molecules, water is one polar molecule. But so are much larger molecules like carbohydrates and proteins, which have polarized regions that attract water molecules. As water clusters around these polar regions of carbohydrates and proteins, it effectively surrounds the larger carbohydrate molecules and separates them from each other. Water does this so effectively, in fact, that each carbohydrate molecule is mostly surrounded by a cloud of water molecules, in effect dissolving into the water and infusing the water with their flavor as well. 

When carbohydrates are added to water in the form of various fruits, vegetables, and herbs, the water binds with these added ingredients and slowly dissolves them. The flavor and aroma molecules that are mixed in come along for the ride and flavors disperse into the water as well. The rate at which this happens is dictated by factors such as time and temperature: Solids, for example, dissolve faster in hot water. As water molecules move faster in hotter water, they bump into the solids more often, which increases the rate of reaction. The higher the temperature, the faster the dissolving time, and the lower the temperature, the longer the dissolving time.

To make a fresh tasting cold infused water, simmering or heating ingredients together was a nonstarter, since I didn’t want my infused water to taste cooked. I needed to use a cold infusion technique and, based on the information above, I knew that this would take some time. Here’s the method I landed on after many tests:

Step 1: Make a Concentrated Extraction

To help kickstart the process, I mashed together my flavoring ingredients with a small amount of water to express all their juices and rupture their cell walls for a quicker and better infusion—this is a technique I settled on after testing a variety of infusing methods in an effort to maximize flavor efficiently. Without any water added, mashing becomes more difficult and laborious, but muddling the solids into the full volume of water is similarly challenging, as they float around and are difficult to pin down under the muddler.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

It’s helpful to cut your ingredients in a way that makes muddling easy and effective. In the cucumber, lemon, and mint water recipe below, I thinly slice the cucumber and lemon, which maximizes surface area while still leaving the pieces large enough to make targeting them with the muddler easy.

Step 2: Dilute With Additional Water and Infuse Briefly, Then Strain

With this muddling/mashing technique decided, the next step was to see how long the ingredients needed to steep to develop a flavor that is balanced and fresh. To do so, I added some additional water to my concentrated muddled extraction—not the full amount of the final infused water, which would take up more fridge space than I cared to dedicate to it, but enough to provide ample water for the flavor and aroma molecules to infuse fully.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

In side-by-side comparisons of steeping times, I found that 30 minutes to one hour is the sweet spot for flavor extraction before off-flavors from the muddled fruit begin to develop. Straining and removing the muddled and steeped solids after this short infusing time removes the concern of unwelcome bitter or off-flavors developing.

Step 3: Fully Dilute, Garnish, and Serve

When ready to drink, all that’s left is to dilute this strained infusion with even more water, then garnish and serve.

While the exact amount of dilution will depend on the ingredients used and personal preference on flavor intensity, I recommend using a rough ratio by volume of one part flavorings to four parts water, which tends to yield an infused water with a subtle flavor that remains water-forward.

Decorative Touches: A Note on Garnishing

While I just explained the need to strain and discard the steeped fresh produce from the infused water before drinking, that doesn’t mean you can’t put pieces of fruit or herbs in your infused water. There is undeniable visual appeal to a fresh wedge of lemon, ruby-toned berry, or freshly plucked leaf leisurely floating in a cold glass of iced water. Simple slices, thin long ribbons, plucked herb leaves, decorative sprigs, or citrus zest curls all make for great garnish options. This is an opportunity to be creative and add your own personal touch. 

Decorative ice also makes for a fun final garnish, and is relatively easy to make. Try adding 1/2-inch to 1-inch chunks of fruit, vegetables, citrus, or fresh herbs to your ice cube molds, then fill with water and freeze. This is a great way to use extra produce or unwanted scraps. Keep in mind that impurities and minerals in your tap water may result in the ice being slightly cloudy. If you want to go to extra lengths to achieve crystal-clear decorative ice, here are couple tips: First, use distilled water. The minerals and contaminants in distilled water have already been removed. Second, boil the water to get rid of much of the dissolved air stuck inside the water, which is a primary cause for cloudy ice. The heating process of the water causes the water molecules to move quickly and bump into each other, which pushes any trapped air between water molecules away and up to the surface.

Putting It Into Practice

In the recipe below for cucumber, mint, and lemon water, the result is fresh and crisp, tinged a light chartreuse color, and has a subtle hint of cooling vegetal flavors. Cucumber’s flavor is not overpowering, and pairs well with lemon and mint to enhance water’s flavor, which is likely why iterations of cucumber water are popular in a variety of places like day spas in North America and street vendors in Mexico and Central America (where cucumber water is known as agua de pepino).

While there are no hard rules about how to come up with your own flavored water ideas, one general guideline is to select no more than two or three ingredients that pair well, which will generally produce a drink that’s interesting without becoming muddied by having too much going on; especially helpful to include are juicy ingredients like cucumber or peaches that will express a lot of flavor with their juices.

With this technique in hand, you now have the ability to not only make the cucumber water recipe below (or other flavors I’ve created, including blackberry, grapefruit, and sage, and plum, thyme, and Fresno chile), but any infused fruit water you can dream up.

In a large bowl or 8-cup liquid measuring cup, combine 1 cup water (236ml), half the sliced cucumber, half the sliced lemon slices, and 1/4 cup mint leaves. Using a potato masher or cocktail muddler, mash until cucumber and lemon are broken down and their juices are fully expressed, about 1 minute.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Stir in 3 cups (710ml) water. Refrigerate, covered, until flavors meld and mixture is chilled, 30 minutes to 1 hour.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Strain infused water through a fine-mesh strainer set over a large serving pitcher, pressing on solids to extract as much juice as possible. Discard solids.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Stir in remaining 4 cups (945ml) water. Just before serving, garnish pitcher or individual glasses with remaining half of sliced cucumber, remaining lemon, and remaining mint. Serve over ice.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez


Any variety of cucumber may be substituted for the english cucumber in this recipe. Measure by weight if using a different variety of cucumber.

Feel free to adjust the amount and cutting technique of the ingredients used as the final garnish in the water. This is your opportunity to be creative and add your personal touch.

For a fun final garnish, serve with decorative ice cubes filled with small pieces of fresh produce or herbs frozen in the center.

Special Equipment

Large water pitcher (minimum 10-cup capacity), potato masher or cocktail muddler, fine-mesh strainer

Make-Ahead and Storage

Strained infused water (without added garnish) can be refrigerated for up to 2 days.

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