If only it were possible to bottle summer and store it away. Then, on a whim, you could open it to let sunshine, frozen desserts, and grill smells brighten even the rainiest of days.
When I was a kid, I almost had it figured out. I’d be at my grandmother Noni’s house in late summer — where time was kept in matches of badminton and meals defined by how many grilled scalloped potatoes you ate and I’d run about with a net and jar bottling fireflies. To me, fireflies were the epitome of summer because they’d dance about in the dark and make the room so bright that I could read Nancy Drew by their light. The next day we’d let them go and I’d inevitably be saddened because I’d remember that both the fireflies and summer were fleeting.
Now that I’m older, I take a different approach. Each season, I round up the season’s produce, get crafty in the kitchen, and lock in the flavor at its prime. Over the years I’ve pickled, preserved, candied, and canned all in the name of sealing the season tight in a jar. But this year, I took a different approach and started distilling those sunshine-filled flavors into shrubs.
The word shrub isn’t something you associate with the kitchen, right? I didn’t either until I came across an obscure reference to a syrup that sounded like a soda base but was coined a shrub. Turns out a shrub is a colonial predecessor to the modern-day soda, but instead of simply being a flavored syrup, shrubs are made with acid — usually vinegar — giving them a distinct tart edge. Making a shrub is as simple as can be: you combine equal parts fruit, acid, and sweetener and let it sit until it becomes an intensely-flavored syrup that’s a true concentrate of the season’s flavors.
I’ve become a shrub-aholic this summer, trying so many variations that there is now a shrub colony in my fridge. They’re addictive because they’re less of a hassle than preserving yet result in an equally brilliant flavor. But this is by no means just a summer project; it can be done with almost any fruit during any time of year. This fall, I plan on experimenting with a pear-cranberry shrub and am dreaming up something with kumquat and clove for the holidays. I don’t think I’ll be satisfied until I’ve captured each flavor from every season, though I’m not sure my refrigerator shelf is up to the task.
Seasonal Shrub Recipe
There are countless recipes out there for shrubs with some calling for a cooked syrup and other calling for weeks and weeks of waiting. My method is simpler –there’s no cooking or infusing — so it’s not only easier but it also results in a purer, fresher fruit flavor. Following are universal instructions that you can use them to create any shrub flavors you can dream up though I’ve also given you a few flavor combinations that I’ve been enjoying this summer. To serve a shrub in the classic manner, mix one part shrub syrup with four parts club soda. Most shrubs can be used anywhere you’d use a flavored simple syrup or flavored liqueurs, from topping ice cream and pancakes to Kir Royales and numerous other cocktails.
1 pound diced ripe fruit (pitted and stemmed as needed)
1 cup sugar
1 cup vinegar
A small amount of herbs or spices (as desired)
Discard any bruised or rotten fruit, rinse and dry the rest, and place it in a large nonreactive bowl. Press on the fruit with the back of a spoon until every piece is bruised. Add the sugar, stir to coat, cover tightly, and set aside in a dark, cool spot until the mixture is syrupy and the fruit broken down, about 1 to 2 days.
Add the vinegar, whisk to combine, add any spices or herbs (if using), cover tightly, and set aside to rest. The mixture is ready when it tastes intensely of the fruit and spices and the sugar-vinegar flavor is slightly mellow, anywhere from 7 to 10 days.
Strain the shrub through a fine mesh sieve and discard fruit and seasonings. Pass shrub through a clean coffee filter or cheesecloth to remove any sediment, as desired. Pour shrub into a clean bottle or jar with a tight fitting lid, cover, and store refrigerated for up to 4 months (some people claim it keeps indefinitely). Before using, shake to incorporate any sugar that may have settled at the bottom of the jar.
Here are a few flavors that I’ve been making this summer (pictured above):
Tomato-Balsamic-Pepper = cherry tomatoes + balsamic vinegar + granulated sugar + 1 tsp black peppercorns
Plum-Sherry-Star Anise = plums + sherry vinegar + granulated sugar + 1 star anise pod
Peach-Cider Vinegar-Rosemary = peaches + cider vinegar + granulated sugar + 1 rosemary sprig
Further Shrub Inspiration:
Berry Shrub and cocktail recipes from Spirits and Cocktails
Sherry Shrub Cocktail from Alcademics
An all-shrub blog at Feel Like Making Shrub
According to this Slow Food article, the folks at Tait Farm Foods have been credited with bringing the shrub back from the brink of obscurity, so, if you’re not up to experimenting, you can order from them. While I haven’t personally tried their shrubs, I have heard good things about them. They also have a ton of great ideas for how to use shrubs in both non-alcoholic and alcoholic drinks.