Wednesday, June 4, 2008


No, this post isn't going to be a stab at our Glorious Leader. It's about a quaint but refreshing beverage that was commonly prepared and drunk in colonial times. Shrub is a vinegary fruit syrup. It is sweetened with sugar, but still retains a sour punch even when diluted in ice water. If that sounds a little odd to you, it is, but I can assure you that it is also tasty and strangely addicting after a while.

Shrub can be made from nearly any fruit that you have in abundance. It was usually made from delicate summertime fruits like berries or stone fruits, which could not be stored without some sort of processing. Apples and pears, both late fall crops, could be kept for months in cold storage. So these were not commonly converted into shrub, though they were often made into cider, the cooler temperatures being ideal for slow fermentation.

So shrub was prepared in summertime, and also consumed in summertime, though it may have been stored from one year to the next. The most strenuous farm labor, harvesting the hay, had to be performed during the hottest months of the year. Shrub, which contained both sugar and vinegar, cooled and refreshed the men during this difficult work, and it also replenished their electrolytes so that they didn't get heat stroke.

The basic process for making shrub is this: Wash any excess dirt off your fruit, and if it contains pits or large seeds remove these. Put the fruit into a large glass or ceramic bowl and cover it with vinegar. Distilled white vinegar is cheapest and works fine. In the colonies apple cider vinegar would probably have been used. If the fruit floats in the vinegar, put a plate on top of it to weigh it down and keep it submerged. Cover the bowl with a towel or plastic wrap and let it soak for 24 hours at room temperature.

The next day, mash the fruit gently with a potato masher or a wooden spoon. Then pass the fruit and vinegar through the fine plate of a food mill and into a large soup pot. Bring the liquid and pulp to a simmer and add a good quantity of sugar. You will probably want at least 1 cup of sugar for every 2 cups of liquid, but it will depend on how sweet your fruit was. Heat the liquid until the sugar is dissolved. Now you can take a sample and dilute about 3 tablespoons in a pint glass full of water and ice. If it's far too sour, add a little more sugar and taste again until you're pleased with the tangy-sweet flavor. If you wish, you may strain the solids out of the syrup.

At this point you may can the syrup as you would any jam or vegetable. Alternatively, you can pour the syrup into cleaned glass condiment jars and freeze it. Once you have opened the jar again, store it in the refrigerator where it will keep for at least six months. When you're ready to serve shrub, shake up the jar to include some of the fine fruit solids in each drink. They're good for you!

A few notes on the recipe...If you use apple cider vinegar in shrub, keep in mind that apple cider vinegar - or apple cider - was commonly prescribed for constipation. Too much apple cider in any form will give you a case of the trots, though it won't hurt you or your digestion in any significant way. You'd probably have to drink an awful lot of shrub to get this effect, but I thought I'd mention this in case you prepare it this way and then think you're ill due to poor processing. It's just a natural attribute of apple cider. Also, if you are diabetic, shrub can be made with the vinegar alone and then sweetened serving by serving with artificial sweetener. It won't form a proper syrup without the sugar, but it can be canned just the same as the sweetened form.

I made shrub late last summer from home grown watermelon, and have been drinking it this year as I do the heavy planting in the garden. It is a very refreshing beverage. I love the peppy feeling I get from drinking it. It's also far better for me than soda, and almost certainly cheaper too. Even if the raw materials cost is equal to what I have paid for store-brand soda on sale, there's the transportation cost of getting all that soda home. With shrub I only pay to transport the vinegar and sugar, both of which get diluted significantly and go into many, many servings. Soda is mostly water, which is very heavy and therefore expensive to transport. With shrub, the water comes very nearly free out of my tap. (We have a well.)

This year I have both watermelon and cantaloupe planted in the garden, both good candidates for a batch of shrub. We won't get anywhere near enough raspberries to store any. But if that decrepit plum tree on our property produces an edible crop of fruit, I may be making shrub from plums this year.

If you have access to free or very cheap fruit this summer, consider making your own batch of shrub. Consider gleaning fruits if your neighbors have fruit trees or bushes that they do not harvest from. It will be a novelty beverage to serve to company, but I suspect you'll end up enjoying most of it yourself. Given our $50 per month grocery challenge, I'm very glad to have stored this beverage last year. It means that cutting out my most costly food vice (soda) from the budget isn't much of a hardship.

If you should wish to try a commercially prepared shrub before deciding whether to invest the time preparing it for yourself, the Tait Farm in Pennsylvania markets their delicious varieties of shrub online. They also have recipes for using shrub syrup in other ways than as a beverage.

Bibendum est!


Anonymous said...

I tried ginger shrub at a tasting in Michie Tavern, a Virginia colonial attraction near Charlottesville. A small bottle was $11, more than I would normaly spend, but it was so wonderful I broke down and bought one. I can't wait to make my own with the help of your recipe! Thank you very much for sharing!

Ann from Virginia

Kate said...

Hi, Ann! I had a glass of shrub that combined the cranberry and ginger shrub syrups from the Tait Farm. It was so memorable that it inspired me to make my first batch.

Good luck with your shrub. What flavor do you plan to try?


katya said...

Did you wind up making a watermelon shrub? I've got a nice fat little melon from my CSA box and I'm thinking that it might make good shrub.

I've made a strawberry, which was (still is) insanely good, a cherry which I'm trying just now (and I think it needs some time in the bottle), and a blueberry which should be ready next week. The preliminary tastes of it have been outstanding. I started an experimental mixed fruit shrub this morning - blueberries, strawberries, nectarines and a little fresh ginger and black pepper. We'll see!

Kate said...

Katya, your shrubs sound awesome! Thanks for sharing. Last year I did not make any shrub at all since I only got two watermelons from the garden. I would really like to have a large enough supply of some homegrown fruit to make plenty of shrub. But it's unlikely to happen this year. We planted two cherry trees this spring, but it will be a few years before they produce well. Buying fruit to turn it into shrub seems a little spendy to me, though I might do it if I could get a lot of imperfect fruit for a really good price.

The Naked Gardener said...

That's interesting that there was such a drink in the western world because there is a virtually identical drink syrup made in Persia that I like to make. Its amazing and so refreshing after biking around in the heat.

Kate said...

Naked Gardener, actually I'm pretty sure the word originates with the Persian word "sharab," just as our word "sherbet" does as well. "Shirin" must either be the root for these Persian words or else have a root in common with them. Are you of Iranian extraction?

Jalarlo said...

Thank you for your wonderful post! I had been looking forward to making shrub drinks this summer after having one this past week in Seattle at a great little restaurant; your explanation and description has inspired me even more. Thank you!

Kate said...

Jalarlo, you're welcome. Hope your shrub turned out well.

Marge said...

When you say bottle and store do you been water bath or does the vinigar preserve it?

Kate said...

Grammy, I'm sure the vinegar is preservative enough, but yes, I do water bath can my shrubs, just to make sure there's a vacuum and a tight seal.

Ms. Halle said...

You are the only one that I've found to confirm shrubs can be canned/bottled. Thank you for adding this info to your recipe comments!