Let’s talk SHRUBS. We are not referring to the plant kind of shrub, which folks would most expect out of me, a nursery-woman. While botanicals do come into play here, we are specifically talking about a sour-sweet drink, sourness provided by vinegar, sweetness by sugar.
I first heard of shrubs some years ago when visiting my friends’ bar in Portland. I kind of shrugged my shoulders at the thought, dismissing it as a hipster drink, ordered a beer, but later looked it up and became quite intrigued.
Turns out that shrubs have a varied history since at least the fifteenth century, with the vinegar serving a utilitarian function for preservation or masking of flavors. The term “shrub” comes from sharāb, Arabic for “to drink.” In particular, shrubs were a way to preserve the flavors and nutrition of fruit in liquid form that could later be mixed with water or alcohol. Today’s version might be described as a flavored drinking vinegar often used as a mixer for cocktails or mocktails, with the basic components being vinegar, fruit, and sweetener.
As a sucker for trying out any food preservation techniques in our bountiful region, I had to at least try it. And as a person who greatly admires the wizardry of mixology but can’t stomach hard alcohol, this shrub making really got me hooked. Combining different flavors to make the shrubs and even different shrubs to mix together to make mocktails has brought out the creative side of me. My poor abandoned Kombucha and Jun mothers have shriveled in waiting, as I have found shrub making more satisfying!
More of the beauty of shrub making lies in the infinite combinations and the lack of precision needed to make them. By using different types of vinegar, sweeteners, fruits, herbs, and spices, options are endless. Top that with the seasonal bounty of the Northstate and no two shrubs will be the same!
You may choose a recipe to follow, but if you want to get creative, you may want to start by playing with the balance of the five taste profiles. For shrubs I personally prefer using sour, sweet, and bitter, but someday I may step it up to add salty and umami.
The term “shrub” comes from sharāb, Arabic for “to drink.” In particular, shrubs were a way to preserve the flavors and nutrition of fruit in liquid form that could later be mixed with water or alcohol.
PLAYING WITH VINEGAR
Vinegar is the backbone taste of a shrub, providing its sourness. Which type you use will change the depth of taste. Apple cider vinegar (especially a raw one) is known as an electrolyte replacement, with potassium, magnesium, and probiotic benefits, and the most commonly used. White vinegar is the most widely available but makes a strong shrub that may need more sweetener. Rice wine vinegar is more subtle and sweet. Balsamic would dominate flavor, so ought to be used sparingly, just a tablespoon of the vinegar in a recipe. Red wine or champagne vinegars are good mediums. If you head to a health food store or ethnic store, you may find others like coconut vinegar, banana vinegar, pineapple vinegar, etc.—for fun experiments. You can also try making your own vinegars like apple scrap vinegar. The fruit that you choose will also have some level of tartness to work with. With a plum on the more sour spectrum, you can play it up with a sour vinegar or play it down with more mellow rice wine vinegar.
PLAYING WITH SWEETENER
While some of the sweetness will come from the fruit, adding sweetness more to your taste is likely in order; just remember shrubs have a characteristic sourness. Recommended ratios are one to two parts fruit, one part sweetener, and one part vinegar. Th e amounts will also depend on whether you plan to drink it straight or as a mixer, for a mixer ought to be more concentrated, since it will be diluted. Use any fruits in season. Chop, mash, cube whatever fruit you choose. I have also used the leftover stubborn flesh that sticks to the seeds like pitted cherries and plums by infusing them in vinegar. If you juice, you might also consider using the fruit waste like apple peels, carrot mass, or other byproducts to infuse for a second life. White sugar, super fine sugar, brown sugar, raw sugar, turbinado, maple syrup, honey, agave syrup, sugars made from coconuts, dates, monkfruit, etc., and even stevia will work for sweeteners in balancing the flavor. The type of sweetener you use can also be determined by which first step in the process you choose to take. Most recipes start by infusing all the ingredients in the vinegar, but another option is to start with the sugar. This will be explained more in the recipe and preparation section below.
A shrub mocktail is now what I make instead of my usual post-work beer. It is refreshing and celebratory and is a good electrolyte charge after a hot day at the farm.
Let’s not forget bitter. It is a taste we have woefully replaced in our Western diet, through breeding it out of vegetables in favor of sweetness (think lettuce) and choosing more cultivated and less wild plants. It is important for the health of our digestive system. If you have ever felt the almost burning sensation of saliva jetting out into your mouth from the corners of your jaw when you eat wild dandelions, then you have felt the additional enzymes in your saliva that are sent down with food to help digest it and maintain a healthy gut biota. Research is further illuminating how connected our belly’s health is to our overall health, and by bringing in a little bitterness you are helping it out. With shrubs, you can add a little bitter to your recipe or make a dedicated bitters shrub that you can take when your digestion is feeling a little sluggish or mix into your mocktail. Bitters can come from using the pith of a citrus (or instead of zesting it, just make a loose chop) or herbs like mugwort, parsley, wormwood, horehound, dandelion, feverfew.
To add another element of complexity of flavors you might like to add some herbs and spices. My favorites for a more sprightly summery drink are flavored basils, lemon verbena, and Makrut lime leaves, but any culinary or tea herb or spice works. As we move into the cooler months, we might add warming herbs like cinnamon, ginger, and cardamom. We might also consider more woodsy flavors like pine, fir, and native sages. Another level to elevate your shrub is towards the medicinal. Some medicinal herbs to consider adding are Hawthorn berries and hibiscus for heart and high blood pressure, peppermint and ginger for stomach aches, mullein, loquat, or elecampane for lungs (we in smoky California can all use this boost!). Tulsi, ginseng, or ashwagandha are adaptogens for adrenal fatigue. Passionflower, skullcap, and hops are noted for stress and relaxation. Using leaves of the above would infuse at normal rates in recipes. If you use dense botanicals like roots, seeds, stems, or bark, you would benefit from giving an extra one to four weeks of a vinegar extraction before adding fruit and sweeteners. Look up “Oxymel,” herbal extractions using vinegar and honey, for more ideas!
My poor abandoned Kombucha and Jun mothers have shriveled in waiting, as I have found shrub making more satisfying!
RECIPE AND PREPERATION BREAKDOWN
The internet abounds with recipes, but since these recipes are so forgiving and best served to your own tastes, feel free to change any parts to them. If you want to make up your own recipe here are some basic guidelines.
First, choose the fruit. This is the most seasonal part of it and should serve as the basis for all the other choices you make. We are lucky in our temperate to almost subtropical climate to have such a range of options. During the winter months you might have access to pomegranates, persimmons, pineapple guavas, prickly pears, kiwis, apples, pears, quinces, and citrus of all varieties, as well as your freezer full of summer fruits.
Next choose the preparation. You can look up the options for heating the ingredients to make shrubs quickly. These seem to be populating the internet with more frequency, but you might lose some of the subtle flavors, nutrients, and probiotic benefits. There is another less common method you can research, and that is to ferment the ingredients a bit to add even more probiotics to the mix. I recommend the most common and easiest way, which is to set the infusion on the counter overnight or the refrigerator overnight up to a week. The following instructions are with this process.
The next choice in the process is in what order do you want to infuse the ingredients. One way is to infuse the fruit in sugar first.
Like salt, sugar is hydrophilic, meaning it draws the water or juices out. The choice to infuse the fruit in the sugar first is based on this characteristic. The most common combination is sugar with citrus peels, which creates an oily sugar known as oleo-saccharum. In this process the sugar draws out the oil and complex flavors within the peels. Ideally this is done with just the zest, leaving the white part of the peel, but if you want some bitter then leave the pith. While I read that all types of sugars are hydrophilic on some level, crystalized sugar (not stevia) seems the best at drawing out the oils and juices. (I have used this method successfully with both peaches and citrus.) Zest, mash, or chop up the fruit, put in a mason jar, cover the fruit well in sweetener, cover the jar with a lid, and shake it so that the sweetener coats the fruit. Let it sit extracting the oils or juices overnight to a couple of days.
Then add just enough vinegar to cover the fruit and sugar and any other herbs or spices you choose to add at this point, then add a touch more of the vinegar. Let this sit for another day or two, strain, add more vinegar or sweetener to taste, bottle, and refrigerate. I save bottles from juice, Chico Chai concentrate, kombucha, or screw top wine for this purpose.
Alternately, you can start with the vinegar. Chop or mash up the fruit and add enough vinegar to cover it. You can add any herbs or spices at the same time. Let it sit on the counter overnight or in the fridge for a day to a week. Strain, add the sweetener to taste, bottle, and refrigerate. If you are making a medicinal shrub, you may get more medicinal properties if you start by infusing the woody or dense herbs or spices for one to four weeks and then add the fruit for the last couple days. Strain, add sweetener to taste, and bottle.
And the most common way I see recipes written is to add all of the ingredients at once, let it infuse for a day to a week, strain, and bottle. It most certainly is the easiest and takes less thought, but I tend to make things more complex, and so I prefer the previous two listed methods that require different steps.
As we move into the cooler months, we might add warming herbs like cinnamon, ginger, and cardamom. We might also consider more woodsy flavors like pine, fir, and native sages.
HOW DO I USE IT?
Electrolyte replacement, probiotic digestive tonic, celebratory drink, medicinal treat, vinaigrette dressing, straight as a drinking vinegar, as a mixer in a cocktail or mocktail. Depending on the strength of the resulting shrub, my go-to mix in a pint glass is two or three ice cubes, one part shrub to three parts bubbly water. When I am feeling fancy, I will mix the different shrubs for a different range of flavors. In particular, I have a Buddha’s Hand Shrub that turned out bitter (darn! it was the first fruit on my tree, and I missed the wonderful subtle flavors by leaving in the pith and letting it sit for too long!), but mixed with my Nectarine Tulsi Shrub that turned out sweeter than I usually like, it blends perfectly.
A shrub mocktail is now what I make instead of my usual post-work beer. It is refreshing and celebratory and is a good electrolyte charge after a hot day at the farm. For folks trying to break away from the sugary soda habit, a shrub would also be a great replacement.
As you can see, the combination of flavors, processes, and mixtures of shrubs is limitless, and the process is very forgiving. Since precision is my weakness and why I am not a good baker, shrub making is my jam! The Northstate offers such an array of cultivated produce, wild edibles, and crafty foodmakers that I imagine soon you too will have your fridge* filled with these botanical creations!
*Yes, I mentioned refrigerator several times. You can increase the ratio of vinegar to make it more shelf stable as was the original intention of the shrub, but our modern version is formulated more for taste and is usually good for at least six months in the fridge.
Sherri Scott runs GRUB Grown Nursery and Farm, specializing in edible and otherwise useful garden starts. She sells these starts at Chico Natural Foods and at her booth at the Saturday Chico Farmers’ Market, February-mid November, or by email arrangement for pick-up. Under the name Naturejunkie Farm & Forage, she also uses farmed and foraged herbs, fruits, and vegetables to make cane sugar-free and mostly vegan foods, nutritionals, and medicinals. She co-founded Chico’s Annual Seed Swap and Chico Seed Lending Library, and has taught cooking, gardening, and herbal workshops for kids and adults. Her recently recorded Zoom workshop on Backyard Seed Saving, sponsored by Butte County Local Food Network, is available on You Tube. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.