If the idea of drinking vinegar makes you cringe, then you’re not alone. Many natural health practitioners tout the benefits of knocking back apple cider vinegar each morning, claiming that it cures all manner of ills. It’s hardly the way that I want to start the day, but strangely, with Brisbane in the grips of an extra-hot summer, you’ll find me happily sipping on fruit-flavoured vinegars instead of my usual gin and tonic.
Drinking vinegars, or shrubs, are the newest old thing around. Essentially a concoction of fruit, vinegar and sugar, shrubs have been prepared for hundreds and possibly thousands of years. British sailors preserved fruit as shrubs and drank it to prevent against scurvy; the same sailors brought the practice to America in the 18th century, where shrubs became regarded as a cooling treatment in the warmer months. Shrubs (and their honey-based cousin, switchels) gained peak popularity in more modern times during the American Temperance years as a fruity alternative to alcoholic drinks. But then alcohol returned with a vengeance (I suppose?) and shrubs faded out of memory.
Fortunately, shrub and switchel recipes were recorded and are undergoing a renaissance. The food blogosphere seems to be exploding with them lately, used in both alcoholic and non-alcoholic preparations. I first heard about shrubs from the gorgeous cocktail blog Holly & Flora and have been joyfully experimenting ever since. They are easily one of the most exciting things I’ve cooked up for a while. Each recipe makes a portion of sweet, tart concentrated cordial that is rich with fruity flavour. Once you have a bottle in your fridge, all you need to do is dilute it with sparkling water or add a dash to your favourite cocktail. It’s seriously, ridiculously, delicious.
There are several methods for making shrubs but so far I have used just one: the cold-process method, which apparently produces a brighter, clearer flavour. Cold-process shrubs take longer to make than other methods, but it’s time rather than labour that is needed. Sugar, fruit and vinegar are introduced to each other one by one, left to macerate, then strained and stored in the fridge for at least a week to mature. This last bit is a critical step: when I made my first version, a Strawberry & Peppercorn Shrub (recipe below), I couldn’t wait and had to sample the freshly strained liquid. It was so purely, intensely strawberry that all I could think of was little girls and fluffy kittens (strawberry overload), but after a week in the fridge the overwhelming sweetness was balanced with tartness and mellowed by the warmth of peppercorn.
The second recipe below (Pineapple Shrub) took some work to perfect. I tried it with orange peel and lemon, with chilli, then no orange and less chilli, then more pineapple etc etc., but just couldn’t get the pure, juicy pineapple flavour I was after. I eventually removed everything but the pineapple and used a base of Japanese rice vinegar and was finally rewarded with a shrub that makes you feel like your head has been swallowed by a pineapple. I have a million other ideas for shrub recipes – clearly, I’m going to need more storage bottles!
To make Jayme’s Strawberry & Peppercorn Shrub, Jayme first has you infuse the sugar with lemon oil. Peel the zest from two lemons and using a suitable tool (such as a cocktail muddler or a sturdy pestle) massage the strips of zest into the sugar for several minutes (use firm pressure, but not so much that the peels break up). You will notice the sugar becoming damp with lemon oil.
Cover the mixture and leave it to sit for at least one hour, then remove the peel, scraping off the excess sugar which will now be very damp (see below). This method of extracting lemon flavour is known as the oleo-saccharum technique.
Add your chosen fresh fruit to the lemon-infused sugar and stir together. Cover again and place the bowl into the fridge for two hours.
After two hours, remove the bowl and using your muddler or pestle, press the fruit gently to extract more juice. Add apple cider vinegar to the mixture, stir through and place back in the fridge for two days.
After two days, strain the mixture, bottle, and leave to mellow out in the fridge for a further week before drinking. Once it’s made, shrubs should keep in the fridge for up to six months. I can barely get beyond stirring a little concentrated shrub into sparkling water, but I can confirm that the addition of vodka is also a good idea. The Pineapple Shrub below is also great mixed with coconut water. Enjoy!
Strawberry & Peppercorn Shrub
Peel from 2 organic or spray-free lemons
1 cup sugar
2 cups strawberries, hulled and quartered
30 black peppercorns, coarsely crushed
1 cup naturally brewed apple cider vinegar
Remove the peel from the lemons, minimising the amount of white pith that comes with it. Place the peel in a medium bowl and cover with the sugar. Press the peel firmly into the sugar for about five minutes, using a pestle, muddling stick or large wooden spoon. Cover the mixture with plastic wrap and set aside for at least one hour until the sugar looks damp and slightly yellow from the lemon oil.
Once an hour or more has passed remove the peel from the sugar to a smaller bowl, scraping off the excess sugar. Reserve the peel and place to one side in a small bowl. Add the strawberries and peppercorns to the sugar and stir to combine. Cover with plastic wrap again and transfer to the fridge. Allow to sit for two hours.
After two hours the mixture will have become quite juicy. Remove from the fridge and press the berries firmly into the sugar to extract more of their juice. Pour the vinegar into the bowl containing the reserved lemon peel. Swish gently to rinse off the excess sugar then remove the peel and discard. Pour the vinegar over the strawberries and stir to combine. Cover the bowl again and place back in the fridge to macerate for two days.
After two days, strain the mixture using a fine-mesh sieve lined with muslin or cheesecloth. Squeeze the fruit gently through the cloth to extract more juice and then discard the spent fruit. Transfer the liquid to a clean (sterilised), air-tight bottle and store in the fridge for one week.
When ready to serve, always shake the bottle first. Pour 2 tablespoons of shrub (or more to taste) into a glass and top with ice and sparkling mineral water, and maybe a dash of vodka. The shrub should keep in the fridge for up to six months.
1 1/4 cup sugar
3 cups ripe pineapple, cut into 1cm chunks
1 cup rice vinegar
Don’t try to make this shrub unless you can get perfectly ripe and sweet pineapple. If you can get them, I would also recommend choosing a low-acid pineapple variety.
Chop the pineapple and mix it with the sugar in a medium bowl. Press the pineapple firmly into the sugar for a few minutes, using a pestle, muddling stick or large wooden spoon. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, transfer to the fridge and leave to macerate for three days.
After three days, strain the mixture as described in the recipe above. Transfer to a clean, air-tight bottle and store in the fridge for two weeks to allow the flavours to mellow (I found that one week wasn’t sufficient and the flavour of the vinegar was still too strong. After two weeks it had mellowed significantly, and it continued to mellow as time went on).
Shake the bottle before using. Serve the Pineapple Shrub diluted with ice and sparkling mineral water, without or without a dash of vodka. The shrub should keep in the fridge for up to six months.