The Easy, Clever Trick for the Best Spicy Strawberry Lemonade

Side view of spicy strawberry lemonade
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

I’m a firm believer in not reinventing the wheel, so when it came time to create a flavorful spicy strawberry lemonade, I did what any efficient recipe developer would: I brazenly cribbed from my colleagues. Which is to say, this recipe for a spicy strawberry lemonade is really Genevieve Yam’s recipe for strawberry lemonade (and that recipe was built on the towering shoulders of Stella Parks’ ultra-flavorful lemonade recipe). All I did was add the chiles, though I can at least take credit for having a lot of intention behind how I added those chiles.

Overhead view of spicy lemonade
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

To be clear, I used their recipes because they’re so good, so thoughtful, and so much better than most of the other recipes out there for this sort of thing. Anyone can make a lemonade by mixing juice with sugar and water, and anyone can add strawberry flavor by muddling some ripe berries into the mix. But Stella’s use of oleo-saccharum, in which lemon zests are macerated in sugar to draw out the flavorful and aromatic essential oils into a bright and fruity syrup, leads to a lemonade with complexity way beyond the typical stuff. And Genevieve’s adaptation of that method to also macerate berries with the zest for a vibrant red and intensely fruity strawberry-lemon syrup is just as effective, and way more delicious than the more basic alternative. Why would I not do the same?

My little innovation was to work chiles into the mix to capitalize even further on this technique.

The Science of Extracting Chile Flavor for Spicy Lemonade

The thing with chiles is that much of their heat and flavor is fat-soluble, which can present a challenge for getting their full effect in a drink that is made only of juice, sugar, and water. That’s not to say you can’t muddle chiles into a lemonade—you can and you will of course taste them. But fat is the better vehicle for pulling out their full range of flavor and heat, and it’s not an ingredient in almost any lemonade I’ve ever seen. Or is it?

This is where that oleo-saccharum lemonade base the Stella and Genevieve both used in their recipes comes in. The process of making oleo-saccharaum involves muddling and then macerating citrus zest with sugar. As the mixture sits, the oils in the zest leach out, wetting the sugar in a fatty glaze. At the same time, water that’s also in the zest (and in this case in the strawberries as well) is pulled out too, dissolving the sugar and forming a syrupy emulsion with the oils.

Overhead view of spicy lemonade base
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Those oils, in turn, are exactly the kind of fat-based flavor-extracting medium we want for the chiles. By mincing the chiles finely and letting them sit in the sugary mixture with the lemon zest and strawberries, we get a powerfully flavorful syrup that, once mixed with the tart juice of the lemons, forms a concentrated flavor base for our drink. It works beautifully.

For this recipe, I tried not to go too hard on the chiles, since I find a more gentle heat to be pleasant with the fruity strawberries, versus the higher levels of heat I aimed for in my basic spicy lemonade and my refreshing cucumber-jalapeño limeade. I also opted for red chiles here, since I think their more ripe, fruity flavor pairs better with the berries and lemons than a green chile would.

You can of course increase the amount of chiles in this recipe if you want an even hotter drink, or decrease them if you want the chile element to be a more subtle background heat. That’s the fun: You can take my recipe, tweak it slightly, and call it “yours” (though I’d of course appreciate a little bit of credit…alongside Genevieve and Stella).

For the Strawberry Lemonade Concentrate: In a large nonreactive mixing bowl, toss the strawberries with granulated sugar, lemon zest, and minced chiles. Refrigerate, stirring occasionally, until sugar has completely dissolved and chiles have infused into the syrup, about 2 hours.

Two image collage of spicy strawberry lemonade base
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Meanwhile, juice the zested lemon halves (You should have about 1 cup of lemon juice). Refrigerate juice in an airtight container until ready to use.

Side view of juicing lemonade
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

When strawberry mixture is ready, stir in 3/4 cup (180ml) reserved lemon juice and 1 1/2 cups (355ml) water and refrigerate for another 30 minutes. Strain through a nonreactive fine-mesh strainer or piece of cheesecloth into a glass or ceramic container (you should have about 2 1/2 cups concentrate total). Cover and refrigerate the concentrate until ready to use.

two image collage o adding lemonade and straining
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

For Serving: Pour strawberry lemonade concentrate into a large pitcher. Stir in 5 cups cold still or sparkling water and garnish with lemon slices and strawberry slices, if using. Dilute with additional water and remaining 1/4 cup lemon juice to taste, if needed (see notes).  Serve over ice.

Side view of spicy lemonade
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Special Equipment

Silicone spatula, cheesecloth or nonreactive fine-mesh strainer


How much chile you use will depend heavily on your tolerance for heat and the type of chile you use. In our testing, about 3 to 4 ounces of medium-hot red finger chiles (about 4 to 6 chiles) produced a lemonade with a good, but not oppressive, heat. Depending on your taste and the specific chiles you use, you may want to use more or less for a hotter or milder effect. You can also use smaller red chiles such as Thai bird’s eye, but keep in mind that you may need to use less of hotter chiles like those. If in doubt, start with less and taste the strawberry-chile syrup as it develops; you can always add more but cannot remove the chiles if they’re too much.

The ratio of the strawberry lemonade concentrate to water is based on my personal taste preference to create my ideal balanced sweet and tart drink. Adjust with additional water and lemon juice to your own taste level, keeping in mind the lemonade will dilute further when served over ice.

To make one serving of finished strawberry lemonade, combine 1/2 cup strawberry lemonade concentrate with 1 cup of cold water, garnish, adjust with water and lemon juice to taste, and serve over ice.

Make-Ahead and Storage

The spicy strawberry-lemonade concentrate can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to one week.