Kitchen Intuition: Shrubs

Authored By aliceodea

Just as the hot weather started to roll into Chattanooga recently, a recipe for a lemon balm shrub appeared on Tant Hill Farm’s blog. This was a timely reminder of a great, adaptable and refreshing drink that can keep one quenched and cool all summer long. Most commonly referred to as a shrub, this beverage also sometimes goes by the name drinking vinegar and is similar to the switchel.

The shrub is a fruit syrup, which is acid-based (the acid is most often vinegar, but sometimes fruit juice); usually sweetened (with sugar, honey or molasses); sometimes alcoholic (mixed with brandy, rum, champagne, sherry or vermouth); and often served mixed with water, soda or seltzer. They’ve been traced back to as early as the 15th century, but in America fell out of favor after Prohibition. They have enjoyed a huge resurgence in recent years (Michael Dietsch gives some credit for this to Tait Farm Foods, who started making shrubs in 1987, which were later discovered by Wall Street Journal columnist Eric Felten).

Homemade shrubs can morph with the seasons, based on whatever is available at the farmers markets. There’s no need to worry about what your produce looks like, as this can even be a good way to use cheaper, less attractive crops (or maybe even the parts you’d normally throw away). And keep in mind that shrubs can be made with more than just fruit. Berries, apples, pears, peaches and cherries all make for a great beverage, but tomatoes, peppers, squash, carrots, cucumbers, beets, ginger, herbs and spices can all add interesting flavor to a shrub.

“Each process has its advantages. The hot process is faster; you can generally complete the shrub within about an hour, whereas the cold process can take up to three days, depending on how long the fruit and sugar need to commingle. (Of course, during most of that time, you’re not actively working on the shrub; the amount of time you spend actively making shrubs is about the same with either method.) The cold process, however, has a game-changing advantage, at least in my opinion: It doesn’t cook the fruit. By leaving the fruit raw, the cold process allows the full flavors of the fruit to come through, fresh and unmuted. I’ve tested hot-process shrubs and cold-process shrubs side by side, and I always find that I prefer the vibrant flavors of the cold-processed ones.”

The two main ways to make a shrub are by heating (hot process) and by soaking (cold process). You can find lots of both types of recipes online, but if you’ve got a particular ingredient in mind, just go to Google, where I was quickly able to find a rhubarb shrub, beet shrub, muscadine shrub and even a habanero shrub!

Don’t be afraid to tinker, as most recipes really should be considered just guidelines. Shrub proportions are often equal parts fruit, sugar and vinegar, but you might like to tweak that ratio quite a bit. I’m a big fan of bitter and acid flavors, and favor shrubs where the vinegar flavor is more intense than the sugar. On the other hand, if I were going to make shrubs for a picnic where kids might have a sample, I’d try to emphasize the fruit and sweet flavors more. Taste as you go and adjust where needed.

If you haven’t tried a shrub before, you might want to taste one to find out what you’re going for when mixing a recipe in your kitchen. In that case, you’ve got plenty of options in Chattanooga. Easy Bistro & Bar, The Social, Community Pie, The Meeting Place, TerraMae and Two Ten Jack all use shrubs, or you could ask for one at your favorite bar. Also, you can purchase bottled shrubs online at places such as Tait Farm Foods and Shrub & Co.

If you’d like to read more about shrubs, books are getting easier to find. Dietsch’s “Shrubs: An Old Fashioned Drink for Modern Times” was published last year, Warren Bobrow’s “Bitters and Shrub Syrup Cocktails: Restorative Vintage Cocktails, Mocktails and Elixirs” came out this month, and Emily Han’s “Wild Drinks & Cocktails: Handcrafted Squashes, Shrubs, Switchels, Tonics and Infusions to Mix at Home” is due out later this year.

It was lovely to be reminded of the shrub option at the beginning of summer. Now we have the whole season to taste, experiment and invent.

Alice O’Dea has lived in Chattanooga for over 20 years, but was raised among the mucks and dairy farms in rural western New York. She didn’t really learn to cook until midlife. When she’s not puttering around in the kitchen, she enjoys running, cycling, traveling, photography and trying to get food to grow in the backyard of her Highland Park home. You can email her with questions, suggestions or comments at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not or its employees.