Have you ever sipped a shrub? Not a bush, but a fruit syrup, preserved with vinegar and mixed with water or alcohol to make a tangy, refreshing beverage. An old-fashioned favorite, shrubs have steadily made a comeback, especially on cocktail menus, but they aren't solely the province of mixologists. Making a shrub syrup at home is a fun way to preserve and play with seasonal fruit, and this template may be followed for practically any fruit you have on hand. In addition to drinks, you can use the brightly flavored syrup in salad dressings, as a glaze for meats, or add a splash to homemade jam. The word "shrub" is derived from the Arabic sharbah, which means "a drink." "Sherbet" and "syrup" also come from this Arabic root. Although drinking vinegars aren't so common today, they have a long history stretching back to the Babylonians, who added date vinegar to water to make it safe to drink, and the Romans, who mixed vinegar and water to make a beverage called posca. Colonial-era sailors carried shrubs, rich with Vitamin C, aboard their boats to prevent scurvy. Shrubs also gained popularity during the Temperance movement and many 19th and early 20th century housekeeping manuals contain recipes for them.
Although there are several different methods for making shrubs, the most common process involves creating a fruit-flavored vinegar and sweetening it with sugar. The acetic acid in vinegar acts as a preserving agent, so shrubs were – and still are – a delicious way to enjoy seasonal fruit juices year-round. I love experimenting with different combinations of fruit and vinegar to make these flavorful syrups.
Because vinegar is high in acid, it does not support the growth of the bacteria that produces botulism. However, some vinegars may support the growth of other harmful bacteria, so cleanliness and proper storage is important. There are faster, easier shrub instructions out there, but I believe this one to be more reliable in terms of rich flavor and long-term keeping.
What You Need
Basic formula: Use 2 cups fruit per 1 pint vinegar. Sweeten with 1 1/2 to 2 cups sugar (level of sweetness is up to personal preference).
Fruit: Berries are perhaps the finest fruit for shrubs, but cherries, peaches, plums, pears, and other fruits may be used. They should be ripe and sweet, yet they do not need to be perfect; this is a great opportunity to use farmers' market "seconds" and any fruit that is abundantly in season. Fruit should be thoroughly washed and may be peeled, chopped, or lightly crushed to shorten the infusing process. Ginger, citrus peel, or even peppercorns may also be added for flavor.
Vinegar: Any vinegar may be used, as long as it is labeled at least 5% acidity. Distilled white vinegar has a clear, sharp flavor; apple cider vinegar tends to be milder with a fruity flavor; and wine vinegars, while more expensive, often provide a superior smooth flavor. Balsamic vinegar is delicious with cherries and strawberries.
Sugar: White granulated sugar provides a neutral sweetness; brown and raw sugars may also be used.
Clean hands and tools are a must!
Glass container with a lid or cap (a quart mason jar works well)
Measuring cups (liquid and dry)
Funnels (useful, but not required)
Clean kitchen cloth or paper towel
Fine cheesecloth or coffee filter
1. Sterilize the container: Wash the container in hot, soapy water and rinse thoroughly. Submerge in a pot of warm water to cover by 1 to 2 inches, bring to a boil, and boil for 10 minutes. For the lid or cap, wash it in hot, soapy water, rinse well, and scald in boiling water.
2. Add the fruit: Carefully remove the container from the pot using canning jar lifters or tongs. Place the fruit in the container.
3. Add the vinegar: Place the vinegar in a saucepan and heat to just below the boiling point, or at least 190°F. Pour the vinegar over the fruit, leaving at least 1/4-inch headspace. Wipe the rim with a clean, damp cloth, and cap tightly.
4. Let it stand: Let the container cool undisturbed and then store it in a cool, dark place such as a cupboard or the refrigerator. Let it stand at least 24 hours and up to 4 weeks until the desired flavor is reached.
5. Strain it: Strain it through a damp cheesecloth or coffee filter one or more times until the vinegar shows no cloudiness. Discard the fruit or save it for another purpose (it's often delicious for use in chutneys).
6. Add the sugar: Place the vinegar and sugar in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve sugar. Remove from heat and let cool. Pour into a clean, sterilized container (use the original mason jar or other bottles; see step 1 for sterilization procedure) and cap tightly.
7. Store: Store the shrub syrup in the refrigerator. Tightly sealed, it may last for up to 6 months. Taste before using to make sure the flavor is still good. Discard immediately if it has mold or any signs of fermentation such as bubbling, cloudiness, or sliminess.
8. Serve: To serve, mix 1 tablespoon shrub syrup into a glass of still or sparkling water. Taste and add more syrup, if desired. Shrub syrups may also be used as cocktail mixers, in salad dressings, and more.
• Process developed by Emily Ho based on historical recipes and the "Flavored Vinegars" chapter of So Easy To Preserve (Cooperative Extension, The University of Georgia, 2006).
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(Images: Emily Ho)