Sweet secrets: What is simple syrup and how to use it

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With simple syrups, you can make delicious cocktails, perfectly moist cakes and so much more. Once you know what simple syrup is, how to make it and how to use it, you can unlock the sweet secret to complex flavor. 

A grapefruit cocktail next to a bottle of pink simple syrup.
Grapefruit cocktail. Photo credit: Unsplash.

Simple syrup shows up in many cocktail and cake recipes is an ingredient, but what is simple syrup, exactly? 

Stirring pure sugar into a drink can take a long time, plus the friction from stirring can melt the ice cubes and dilute the drink. Simple syrup eliminates this problem. 

A liquid mixture of sugar and water, simple syrup makes it easier to sweeten drinks like boba tea, lattes, cocktails and mocktails. 

What is simple syrup?

Also called sugar syrup, simple syrup is a liquid sweetener made from sugar and water. It gets its name from the easy quality of this two-ingredient recipe — simple syrup is very simple to make. 

Granulated sugar, or white sugar, is most commonly used and yields a clear-colored syrup.

However, syrups can also be made from other types of sugar, including brown sugar, demerara sugar and honey. You can also make sugar-free syrup from sugar substitutes like stevia, monk fruit and coconut sugar. 

But the possibilities don’t stop there. Simple syrups can also be infused with fruits, vegetables, herbs, roots, spices, extracts and flowers to yield unique flavor combinations. 

A whisk in a saucepan of simple syrup on a portable burner.
Making simple syrup. Photo credit: YayImages.

How to make simple syrup

Like its name implies, simple syrup is easy to put together. Though it can be purchased at supermarkets and liquor stores, it is more cost-effective to make at home. 

There are two main ways to make it: with heat or friction. 

  1. Stovetop: Combine sugar and water over low heat. The mixture doesn’t need to boil, but it should be warm enough for the sugar to dissolve. The syrup should be cooled before using in drinks. 
  2. Blender: Add the sugar and water to a blender and blend on high until the sugar has dissolved.
  3. Jar: Add the ingredients to a mason jar and seal it tightly, then shake it well until the sugar dissolves. 

Any of these methods will help the sugar to dissolve, but the two no-heat methods are ideal for the times you need syrup right away. 

Best simple syrup ratio

When making a simple syrup recipe, the most common ratio is 1-to-1, meaning that you use equal parts of sugar and water. 

Rich simple syrup is the name for the recipe when it is made with more sugar than water. A 1.5-to-1 or 2-to-1 ratio will yield a thicker syrup. 

A stack of pancakes topped with raspberry syrup and fresh berries.
Raspberry syrup. Photo credit: YayImages.

Simple syrup flavors 

While plain simple syrup offers up sweetness, it can also serve as a vessel for new flavor profiles. For example, grenadine is the name for a pomegranate syrup that is used in drinks such as the Shirley Temple and the tequila sunrise. 

Infusions work best with the heat method for making simple syrup. A flavoring element can either be boiled with the water or infused in the hot syrup as it cools. 

Start with one ingredient or use a combination to make your own creative syrup infusions: 

  • Fruits: berries, apples, peaches, melon 
  • Vegetables: jalapeño peppers, celery, rhubarb
  • Herbs: mint, rosemary, basil, thyme, sage 
  • Spices: ginger root, cinnamon sticks, cloves
  • Extracts/tinctures: vanilla extract, coconut extract, lemon extract, bitters
  • Nuts: almonds, pecans, walnuts, pistachio  
  • Flowers: lavender, elderflower, rose 

Smoke is another flavor to experiment with. Christie Vanover of the barbecue website Girls Can Grill suggests making smoked simple syrup. “For instant smoked cocktails, smoke the sugar water for two hours at a low temperature,” said Vanover. 

A baker wearing an apron pours syrup over a cake.
Simple syrup for cakes. Photo credit: YayImages.

How to use simple syrup 

Simple syrups have a variety of uses. Here are a few common ones: 


Simple syrup is ideal for sweetening cocktails and non-alcoholic drinks alike, especially cold drinks in which regular sugar would be harder to dissolve. 

Try it in iced tea, iced coffee, lemonade or an Italian soda. It can also be stirred into hot drinks, like hot chocolate, hot tea and coffee drinks

“I love making simple syrups to add to drinks so I don’t have to worry about the sugar not dissolving, especially in lemonade, coffee and tea. Infusing the syrup with additional flavors, such as mint, cinnamon or citrus, while it’s cooking adds extra flavor to the sweetener. 

— Jeré Cassidy, One Hot Oven

Common cocktails using simple syrup include the old-fashioned, the margarita and the mojito. 


Simple syrups can be drizzled as a topping over desserts and breakfast foods. 

Try pouring it over breakfast foods like pancakes, waffles or French toast. For dessert, drip it over ice cream sundaes, brownies or slices of cake.


Bakers brush simple syrup over cake layers before decorating them to infuse extra moisture. This prevents the cake from drying out but can also lend additional flavor. You can also use this method on quick breads like lemon loaf. 

“Flavored simple syrup is perfect to drizzle over your cakes, not only to give them more flavor but also to make them so much more moist than they would be otherwise. Just make sure to poke holes in the cake with a toothpick first so the cake absorbs the simple syrup.” 

— Michelle Price, Honest and Truly
A hand squeezes simple syrup onto a bundt cake.
Simple syrup on a cake. Photo credit: YayImages.

Simple syrup substitute

If you’re out of simple syrup or simply don’t want to make it, you can easily substitute it with other ingredients. 

  • Maple syrup: When maple syrup mixes into drinks, it lends its caramelized, toffee flavor. 
  • Agave nectar: Made from the agave plant, this syrup works especially well in margarita recipes
  • Honey: Honey will dissolve better when mixed with warm water to make honey syrup. 

Pure sugar or a sugar cube will work, but will take longer to dissolve in cold drinks. 


Simple syrup can be stored in food-safe, airtight containers. Mason jars work especially well, but you can use glass bottles and plastic containers as well. 

Plain simple syrup can keep in the fridge for about a month. Infused syrups won’t last quite as long — because foreign ingredients have been added to the mixture, the likelihood of mold and bacteria increases. 

To increase the shelf life, you can add preservatives. There are a few ways to do this: 

  • Sugar: Sugar is a preservative, so making a rich simple syrup can help your syrup to last longer and prevent mold. 
  • Alcohol: Add alcohol that’s 15 to 20 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). 
  • Acidity: Lemon juice, citric acid and vinegar can help to preserve the flavor. 

Bear in mind that alcohol and acid can alter the flavor of the syrup, so either plan to make it fresh regularly or make a rich syrup so that it lasts a little longer. 

Most syrups can be frozen. Freeze them in an ice cube tray so you can defrost a small amount at a time. 

Based in Charlotte, N.C., Susannah Brinkley Henry is the cocktail content creator behind the blog Feast + West. Her work has been featured in Southern Living, Oprah Daily, Buzzfeed, and more. In 2019, her website was a finalist in the Saveur Blog Awards for Best Entertaining Blog. As a professional graphic designer, photographer, writer, and recipe developer, Susannah helps home bartenders and drink enthusiasts level up their cocktail skills.

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