When we hear the word shrub, most of us picture a bush in the yard.
But a shrub in the kitchen is a historical beverage also called drinking vinegar.
Why make a shrub? Thirst-quenching, nutritious and affordable are three top reasons.
The History of Shrubs
The word shrub is derived from the Arabic word, sharab which means “to drink.” Shrubs are fruit and/or herb-infused vinegar syrups sweetened with honey or sugar…now before you dismiss the thought of drinking vinegar, hear me out. They are delicious and thirst-quenching when mixed with sparkling water.
Shrubs came about in the pre-refrigeration centuries due to the historical use of vinegar to preserve seasonal fruits. After straining out the fruit, the vinegar was sweetened with honey and then mixed with water or alcohol and served in both homes and public houses. Colonial America continued the tradition but substituted much cheaper sugar (due to slave labor) for honey. More recently, American restaurants and bars re-discovered these sweet and sour syrups to flavor custom cocktails. (A pizza cafe in my region features a cocktail made with pineapple shrub, pepper vodka, muddled cilantro, lime, & jalapeno & soda water.)
Several years ago, I purchased the book, Wild Drinks, and Cocktails by Emily Han and have discovered many ways to make a variety of beverages from fruits and herbs. The book is filled with an array of modern twists on mostly historical drinks that fell out of favor when sugar-laden carbonated soda water became widely available. If you are intrigued by drinks like shrubs, switchels, squashes, cordials, liquid fermentations, tonics, and infusions as well as digestive bitters, medicinal oxymels, and syrups then this is the book for you. Emily is an herbalist and wild-food enthusiast so many of her recipes feature medicinal herbs and nutrient-dense wild foods.
Do you have local orchards where you can pick or buy fruit? If so, it’s worth the time and energy to spend a morning gathering pounds of locally grown fruit. The fresh nutrients factor is the big draw but supporting local farmers, growers, beekeepers, and orchardists helps to maintain a local food economy. I don’t grow fruit trees because I have abundant access to cherries, apples, pears, and peaches in my region. I do have a large raspberry patch and several rhubarb plants that make excellent shrubs.
This past year, I have been using Aronia berries (AKA chokeberries), which I don’t find enjoyably edible so I use the big bags gifted to me by a friend to make nutritious shrubs. Check your farmers’ markets for local fruit: berry growers often sell at local markets. And don’t overlook overripe or bruised fruits ( I often see bags of these in my local grocery store at a reduced price); they actually make great shrubs because their flavors are strong and texture doesn’t matter.
Shrub Making Tips
Fresh or thawed frozen fruit can be used. I especially like raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, and cherries. Apples, pears, peaches, nectarines, plums, and pomegranates are ideal for seasonal shrubs. Citrus fruits can be used (search online for citrus shrubs) but I haven’t tried using them.
Most kinds of vinegar can be used; I don’t recommend distilled white vinegar as it’s too harsh. Inexpensive apple cider vinegar, the less expensive version of balsamic vinegar, white and red wine vinegar, and slightly sweet rice vinegar are all suitable options. Consider matching the vinegar taste to that of the fruit. For example, balsamic is sweet with a dominant taste so I combine it with red or wine vinegar and partner it with a strongly flavored fruit like raspberry or cherry. I tend to use ACV most of the time because I always have it in the pantry.
Honey, sugar, and maple syrup are excellent for sweetening the shrub. Like the vinegar choice, try to match the sweetener to the desired final taste of the fruit-infused vinegar.
Herbs & Spices
Herbs and spices can be added to impart a slight flavor or to offer some mild medicine. Fresh or dried herbs like lemon balm, basil, chamomile, peppermint, spearmint, and ginger are good choices (I don’t recommend strong-tasting herbs like oregano, rosemary, and thyme.). Spices are ideal for making fall and winter shrubs using apples and pears. Avoid using ground spices as they can overpower the fruit and vinegar and are difficult to strain out.
Basic Recipe for Fruity Shrubs
Yield: About 2 cups
Steeping time: 1-3 weeks
- 2 cups fresh or thawed fruit (mashed if soft, diced small if hard)
- 1-2 cups vinegar of choice (enough to cover the fruit)
- Chopped herbs or spices; 1-2 T. fresh herbs, 1-2 teaspoon if using dried
- 1/2-1 cup sweetener
Place the fruit in a bowl and mash using a potato masher or a fork. Transfer the fruit and its juices to a quart-sized canning jar. Add chopped spices or herbs. Pour the vinegar over the fruit, ensuring the fruit is completely covered.
Wipe the rim of the jar with a clean cloth. Cover the jar with a non-reactive lid (metal lids interact with vinegar and it’s not pretty). If you don’t have a plastic lid, slip a piece of waxed paper between the jar and the metal lid. Store the jar in a cool, dark place for 1-3 weeks, shaking it daily. Strain the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer. Compost the fruit solids.
Combine the vinegar and selected sweetener in a clean jar with a non-reactive lid. Add sweetener slowly, tasting between additions for desired sweetness. Whisk or stir until sweetener is completely dissolved. Store in the refrigerator for up to 1 year (but I assure you it won’t last that long).
To use: Fill a glass 1/3 full with shrub and add sparkling water.
Try these combinations:
- Cherries + balsamic vinegar + vanilla + honey
- Rhubarb + red wine vinegar + spearmint + honey
- Berry of choice + ACV + basil + honey
- Pear/apple + ACV + cinnamon stick + fresh or dried ginger + maple syrup
- Peach + white wine vinegar + peppercorns + honey
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