These days, history is in high demand in the world of food and drink, as bartenders and chefs reach further and further back in time to entice prospective guests with old-fashioned, original and forgotten recipes. From pre-Prohibition cocktails to medieval menus, there’s hardly a volume left in the library that hasn’t been mined for culinary inspiration. All this book-worming has given us a lot to be thankful for, from the revival of classic punch to the collective joy of heirloom tomatoes, and while some recipes are probably better off dead, there are some culinary delights that make living in antiquity seem maybe not so bad.
Take the shrub. No, not the Monty Python punchline or the green thing in the garden. Derived from the Arabic word sharab, a shrub is a puckery, delicious potion made from fruit, sugar, and vinegar, versions of which have been consumed across the globe for millennia. Historically speaking, shrubs were a way to preserve fruits—specifically the nutrients inside them—before refrigeration came around. Drinking vinegar dates all the way back to Biblical times, when people mixed old wine with bad water to make it potable. Vinegar also wards off scurvy, and lasts a lot longer than limes on a long voyage (sailors take note). But throw a little sugar and some fruit in there and you’ve got yourself a thirst-quencher perfect for summertime sipping. Add a little booze and you’ll get everyone’s attention.
Before we go any further, you might be asking why we’re recommending drinking vinegar in the first place, instead of leaving it in the salad dressing. Well, if you’ve ever tried kombucha, you’re halfway there. Shrubs provide an endless variety of sweet, savory and complex flavors and are a great alternative to cocktails if you’re desperate for something besides a cranberry-and-seltzer. They’re a great way to utilize fruits, vegetables, and herbs you might otherwise throw out—those ugly strawberries that didn’t make the cut for the shortcake, perhaps. Plus, they’re almost stupidly easy to make, and who doesn’t want to impress their friends with a newfangled (old-fangled) homemade concoction?
Here’s how you do it.
The first thing you need to know when preparing to make your shrub is this: there is NO wrong way to make a shrub. You like it sweet? Add more sugar. Want more fruit flavor? Another handful of berries. All about that pickled life? Reach for the vinegar. Experimenting with shrubs is a low-cost, low-risk endeavor: all you need is a sealable jar and some cheap ingredients. There is literally no way to screw this up except by dropping it on the floor. Below is a very, very basic shrub recipe. Every piece of it is customizable, from the produce to the type of vinegar to the color of the sugar. Happy experimenting!
- Mixing bowl
- Measuring Cup (or eyeball it, whatever)
- Sealable container (Mason jars work well and look good on Instagram)
- Fine mesh strainer (you can use cheese cloth or a coffee filter too, but a strainer is easiest)
- Plastic wrap
- Big spoon for stirring
- 2 cups of the Produce-of-Your-Choice (pineapple is delicious, and frozen works just fine)
- 1 cup Vinegar-of-Your-Choice (try champagne for starters, it’s relatively mild)
- 1 cup Sugar-of-Your-Choice (plain white is perfectly good, but you can get funky with this too: Turbinado? Brown?)
- Combine fruit and sugar in the bowl—don’t be afraid to beat the fruit up a little while you stir.
- Cover with plastic wrap, and place in the refrigerator for 24 hours to macerate (let the sugar draw the juice and flavor out of the fruit).
- Strain off the fruit solids (Pro Tip: use them for a delicious dessert topping)
- Add the vinegar to your fruit/sugar syrup. If there’s extra sugar in the bowl after straining, rinse it out with the vinegar.
- Pour the fruit, sugar, and vinegar mixture into your mason jar, screw the lid on tight, and shake to dissolve any remaining solid sugar.
- Place the mixture into the fridge for a week before using. There’s nothing wrong with tasting it early—especially to see if you need to tweak your flavor—but some cool chemical stuff happens once all the ingredients reach equilibrium and it will taste MUCH better once you let it rest.
Shrub recipes are not dependent on exact measurements, so don’t be afraid to get weird, branch out, and go with your gut. Want a little spice? Throw some jalapeño in it. Maybe some peppercorn? Ginger? There are no wrong answers here, and you can divide your batch into multiple containers with different additives to perfect your potion. When in doubt, turn to Google.
Once it’s done, storing your shrub is a cinch too. Almost nothing is completely immune to spoiling, but since sugar and vinegar are both preservatives, the high-test blend in a shrub makes them last for a very long time, especially if they’re properly stored (refrigerated in a sealed container). Always check them before serving, but there’s no reason a properly-stored shrub can’t last a year or longer.
Now that you’ve made one, what do you do with it? Since shrubs do so much of the heavy lifting in terms of flavor and complexity, making a delicious shrub cocktail can be as simple as choosing your spirit. Cognac, brandy and rum were the go-to tipples back in shrubs’ heyday, but modern drinkers are blessed with the endless variety of a global economy, so again, don’t be afraid to experiment. Try tequila with a strawberry-basil shrub and some soda water to crush your springtime patio party. Bourbon with an apple-cinnamon shrub is a great way to warm up on a cold night or kick off a holiday meal. Dark rum with a pineapple-ginger shrub is a great alternative to a Dark and Stormy. And if you want to keep crushing drinks all day, try a dry sherry (Lustau Fino) or vermouth (Dolin Dry) in place of hard liquor.
So whether you’re a teetotaler looking for a new fix, a cocktail nerd looking for the next addition to your home-bar arsenal or you’re just thirsty with a few extra ingredients in your kitchen, let shrubs take up a little space in your fridge. You won’t be mad you did.