(Note: I gave a live demonstration of this topic at the California Academy of Sciences NightLife event on January 10, 2013. If you’re showing up because you saw me there, thanks!)
No, this post isn’t about gardening. The kind of shrub I’m referring to isn’t a decorative bush in the front yard–it’s a tasty ingredient for cocktails and sodas.
Shrubbing is a method of preserving ripe fruit using sugar and vinegar that was popular in Colonial America. Due to its acid nature, you don’t have to acid citrus to drinks that use it as a sweetening and flavoring ingredient. Serious Eats has a great post that gets into the topic in a little more depth than I will here, including a description of an alternate method for shrubbing. But the method I’m going to describe here is ridiculously simple.
1. Combine equal parts sugar and cut or crushed fresh fruit in a bowl. One cup each of fruit and sugar (plus one cup of vinegar–see step 3) should make enough shrub for 10-20 drinks, depending of how much syrup you use.
Part of the beauty of shrubs is how many options there are for different flavors. For the fruit, use something really ripe and in season, so you get the best flavor possible. Feel free to add herbs or spices, too! For a shrub I made last year, I used peaches, black peppercorns and vanilla beans. This time, I’m using mangoes and jalapeño peppers (I thinly sliced the chilies and removed most of the seeds, leaving a few for heat):
You’ve got options when it comes to sugar, too! I used turbinado sugar in the picture above, which imparts a nice rich flavor, but you can use evaporated cane sugar, white sugar, brown sugar, maple sugar…whatever! I’m sure you can use honey and agave, too, though I’m not sure how that will change the maceration process.
2. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to macerate in the fridge for anywhere from a few hours to a few days, long enough for the fruit to release its juices and form a syrup with the sugar.
Here’s what my mangoes looked like after about seven hours:
And the next morning:
I decided to stop here and move on t the next step, but don’t be afraid to let it go a little longer.
3. Strain the syrup off the solids into a new bowl and scrape any remaining undissolved sugar into the bowl as well. Whisk in an amount of vinegar equal to the amount of sugar you originally added, then use a funnel to transfer the whole mixture to a bottle and store in the fridge.
You can play around with different types of vinegar, too. Apple cider vinegar, red wine vinegar, and champagne vinegar are popular, but stronger flavors can stand up to balsamic vinegar as well. I used red wine vinegar.
4. Shake every so often to dissolve the rest of the sugar.
5. After storing for a few days, use to make drinks!
The flavor of the shrub will change over time, as the vinegar and syrup mingle and mellow. This is why it’s best to let it rest instead of using it right away. As Frederic over at Cocktail Virgin Slut explains, the yeast from the fruit and in the air will start to convert to alcohol, which is then turned into vinegar by the bacteria in the vinegar. However, the whole mixture does not fully convert to vinegar because the pH change caused by the bacteria stalls out the fermentation of yeast–no new alcohol is being produced, so no more can turn to vinegar.
Making drinks with shrubs is easy, and you can use the recipe below as template, substituting whatever type of shrub you made and spirits and sodas you want (for example, we combined the peach shrub I mentioned earlier with bourbon and ginger beer). Feel free to add bitters or liqueurs and to play with the ratios. And leave out the alcohol for a non-drinker-friendly beverage.
- 2 oz dark rum (I used Myers’s)
- 3/4 oz mango-jalapeño shrub
- 3 oz soda water
Combine rum and shrub in a glass. Fill will ice and top with soda. Cheers!