We wait all year for this: fingers stained with cherry juice, arms covered in bramble scratches, and countertops cluttered with canning jars.
We can, dry, freeze, jam, pickle, and preserve summer, and we’ve gotten pretty good at it. But there’s another way to bottle summer’s bounty. It’s called a shrub.
Shrubs date back to the 18th century. Their name comes not from leafy bushes but from sharab, an Arabic word meaning syrup, and sharbat, a Hindi word for an aromatic syrup made from fruit, or herb and flower extracts, that is stirred into water and served over ice. (The popular frozen confection known as sherbet can also be traced back to this word.)
Similar to drinking vinegars, shrubs are concentrated syrups made from fruit, sugar, and vinegar. They were invented during a time when lack of refrigeration required ingenuity in the kitchen, especially when it came to preserving perishable food items like berries and stone fruit for enjoyment in winter.
When stirred into a glass of cold water, a shrub syrup produces a refreshing, quaffable beverage that strikes a pleasing balance between tart and sweet, simultaneously quenching the thirst and whetting the appetite.
In the 19th century, shrubs were used to flavor tonics and sodas as well as cocktails; they disappeared with the rise of industrially produced soda pop. But thanks to the current craft-cocktail movement, shrubs — along with homemade tonic, handcrafted bitters, and cocktail menus driven by seasonal ingredients — are making a comeback.
A bar isn’t the only place to sample shrubs, though. They’re actually easier to turn out at home than a jar of blackberry jam. The basic formula can be adjusted according to the natural sweetness of the fruit and your personal taste, and begins with equal parts (by weight) ripe fruit, sugar, and vinegar.
Opinions differ as to the best technique for shrub-making. One camp of bartenders macerates the fruit in sugar, extracts as much juice as possible from the solids, and adds vinegar to taste. Another infuses the vinegar with the fruit, strains the solids, and adds sugar to taste. Some simmer the syrup on the stovetop; others do it cold, a process that takes longer but captures the pure, bright color and flavor of the fruit when it’s fresh.
After deciding on a method, pick a fruit. Shrubs are the very essence of the fruit they contain, so find the sweetest, ripest version of the ingredient available, at the time of year when it’s in season.
Vinegar type should be carefully considered as well, to complement instead of overwhelming the fruit. That old rule about cooking with wine — don’t cook with anything you’d refuse to drink — comes in handy here, as shrubs aren’t the place for bargain brands or distilled white vinegar, which is too sharp and acidic.
Vinegars made from red wine, white wine, Champagne, and apple cider are all good options. Don’t hesitate to venture into less familiar territory, too, as certain fruit-and-sugar combinations are best showcased with rice vinegar, coconut vinegar, balsamic, or white balsamic.
Experiment with different kinds of sugar. The molasses notes in brown sugar play well with peaches and blackberries, but would be a mismatch with raspberries. Raw sugar offers a middle ground between granulated and brown sugars, while honey, agave, and molasses each lend different and unique flavor profiles.
The final ingredient in a well-made shrub is an aromatic, usually an herb or spice. This addition is optional, but it’s the key to creating a distinctive shrub with multiple layers of flavor. For guidance, think back to memorable flavor combinations, both familiar and unusual, that you’ve enjoyed in food: peaches and cinnamon, strawberries and balsamic vinegar, blueberries and lavender, watermelon and mint.
To make your shrub, mash the fruit, sugar, and aromatics in a non-reactive container, cover, and wait until a syrup forms, usually in 5 to 6 hours or up to 2 days. Add the vinegar, let it sit one week, and strain out the solids. You’ll then want to allow another week for the sharp odor and flavor of the vinegar to mellow.
To serve, begin by mixing one part shrub syrup with six parts sparkling water, leaving a bit of room in the glass to add more syrup or water, according to taste. Shrubs can be served with still water too, or used as the citrus-y, acidic component of a cocktail.
Then raise a glass to summer!
Here are several shrub flavor combos I like.
Blackberries: white wine or Champagne vinegar + lemon verbena; apple-cider vinegar + peppercorns
Blueberries: white-wine vinegar + bay leaves or lemon verbena or lavender
Carrots: rice vinegar + ginger or toasted coriander seed
Citrus (Meyer lemon, grapefruit or blood orange): white-wine vinegar + rosemary
Cranberries: red-wine vinegar + orange zest; apple-cider vinegar + cloves and cinnamon sticks
Peaches: red-wine vinegar + cinnamon basil or lavender
Pineapple: coconut or rice vinegar + sag or long pepper
Raspberries: red-wine vinegar + pink peppercorns; Champagne vinegar + rose geranium
Rhubarb: lavender + Champagne or white-wine vinegar; apple-cider vinegar + cardamom
Strawberries: white-wine vinegar + tarragon; balsamic vinegar (use ½ white balsamic) + black peppercorns
Tomatoes: white-wine vinegar + basil; red-wine vinegar + peppercorns
Watermelon: white-wine vinegar + basil or mint
This recipe makes one scant quart of shrub syrup.
3 to 4 cups fresh fruit or vegetables, preferably organic, washed, stemmed, seeded, and cut in 1-inch chunks if necessary
2 to 2½ cups sugar
2 cups vinegar
Aromatics (for herbs, several sprigs or a modest handful of leaves; for spice, 1 to 2 tablespoons, depending on strength/flavor)
Combine the fruit and sugar in a wide-mouth glass jar. Use a muddler or wooden spoon to apply gentle yet firm pressure, enough to break up the fruit. Cover the jar with a lid or plastic wrap and let it sit in a cool, dark place for at least 5 or 6 hours, or up to 24 hours.
After 24 hours, add the vinegar and aromatics, stir until the sugar has dissolved, and return, covered, to a cool, dark spot (or the refrigerator) for a week or slightly longer, until the flavor is fully realized.
After a week, or when the flavor is to your liking, press and strain the contents of the jar through cheesecloth or a fine-mesh sieve, pressing lightly to release all of the liquid from the fruit. Store in a clean container in the refrigerator for another week, or until the flavor of the vinegar mellows and fades into the background.
The shrub will keep in the refrigerator for up to 6 months. Serve it with sparkling or still water, over ice, or create your own cocktail by mixing the shrub with a spirit (gin, rum, or vodka), complementary liqueur, and bitters.
A former pastry chef, Ellen Jackson is a Portland-based food writer and stylist.
Related recipe: Basic Shrub Recipe
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