Preserving and using fruits is one of the great challenges for gardeners during the summer. After a while, you might get tired of pies and other sweet treats made with locally grown berries and the like. When you do, consider turning your fruits into a delicious, refreshing cocktail (or mocktail, depending on your druthers) called a shrub.
A shrub — or drinking vinegar — is an old-fashioned fruit syrup, preserved with vinegar and mixed with water or alcohol to make a tangy, refreshing beverage.
“They are incredibly fun,” said Kathleen Savoie, extension educator at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. “Shrubs really do have a history all the way back to colonial times when people would look to find a means to extend fruit that had perhaps gone past its peak for eating.”
Sweet and savory shrubs have made a resurgence on cocktail menus in recent years, but they aren’t just for high-end mixologists. The acetic acid in vinegar acts as a preserving agent, so shrubs are a delicious way to enjoy seasonal fruit juices year round. Making a shrub syrup at home is a fun way to preserve and play with seasonal fruit. You can also use the syrup in salad dressings, jam or as a glaze for meats.
Savoie said that the basic template for a shrub — which can be applied to almost any fruit you have on hand — is to mix together two cups of sugar (white sugar is generally best, though raw and brown sugars can be used) with two cups of fruit and two cups of vinegar. Savoie recommended using apple cider vinegar because it is less astringent, but white vinegar is also acceptable; balsamic vinegar can even be used for a robust, flavorful shrub when combined with strawberries or cherries.
You have a lot of freedom with each of those ingredients to use what’s in season and what’s in your cupboard. Shrubs are also a great opportunity to use any blemished or imperfect fruits you can purchase at a discount. Additional spices and other mix-ins, like citrus, can be included for an even more complex flavor profile. Savoie recommended combinations like blueberry basil and raspberry lime
“One of my favorites was peaches and grilled peppers — it had a great flavor profile,” Savoie said. “You have the nice sweetness from the peaches and a little bit of smoky pepper in there as well. Really, the sky’s the limit.”
Wash, peel and chop your fruit first. For best results, Savoie said to mix the fruit with sugar first in a sterile canning jar, smash it all together and refrigerate it for a day before adding the vinegar.
“Some people will cook the fruit ahead of time and mix the sugar with the fruit,” Savoie said. “That does give it more of a cooked flavor versus a fresh flavor, but from a food safety standpoint it does also reach a high temperature, which does kill off any pathogens that were present. It is kind of a safety step.”
Set the mixture in the refrigerator for a few days to a few weeks to let the flavors set.
“The big thing we push from a food safety standpoint is to make sure that flavor development is happening in the refrigerator, not on the countertop,” Savoie emphasized. “If it’s at room temperature and if you did have any pathogens that were present on the fruit, [when you’re] combining the sugar and the fruit first, that’s a perfect environment for problems to occur.”
Sample your shrub every few days to see if you like the flavor. Once it is to your liking, strain your shrub through a fine mesh strainer to get rid of the fibrous bits.
“You come up with this slightly thick product and it’s really used as a syrup,” Savoie said. “I always break mine down with a seltzer. A lot of people will use it as a mix for a cocktail. They’re very flavorful.”
Step 3: Store — or enjoy
Store the shrub syrup in the refrigerator. Savoie said that a properly made and stored shrub can last for up to six months. You can also use a water bath canner to store shrubs for longer use. Savoie said to simply follow the recommendations for canning like you would for an herbal vinegar.
To serve as a drink, mix one tablespoon shrub syrup into a glass of sparkling water. Taste and add more syrup if desired — or, add a splash of liquor to make a refreshing home cocktail with your delicious preserved fruits.