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Cocktail 101: More Complex Shrub Syrups
Last year, I described the shrub syrup, and presented a recipe for making shrubs at home. At the time, I was working with simple shrub syrups, consisting of fruit, sugar, and vinegar. These are always delicious, but they can be a little one-note. Today, I'm going to complicate things a little, by introducing accent ingredients that complement the fruit base and provide a deeper, more complex flavor to the shrub.
Before I begin, let me reiterate the definition of shrub:
In beverage history, the word shrub has carried several meanings. For our purposes, it's enough to say that a shrub is an acidulated beverage made of fruit juice, sugar, and other ingredients. Where things get complicated is that the acid varies by recipe; it can be either fruit juice or vinegar. Additionally, some shrub recipes are prepared using alcohol that steeps with the fruit, acid, and sugar. Finally, hardcore shrubbers make their own vinegar, using fruit juice, sugar, and wild yeasts from the air.
Keep in mind that the original purpose of shrub-making was to preserve fruit, long past its picking. Shrubs, in that sense, are cousins to jams, jellies, and preserves. Mixed with cold water, a shrub syrup serves as the base of a tart-sweet beverage that quenches thirst, especially on hot summer days. Think of them as one of the first soft drinks.
I normally prefer a cold process for shrub-making. Here's how it goes:
- Take some chunks of fruit or berries and mash them in a non-reactive bowl.
- Add sugar and stir and set them in the fridge for several hours, so that the sugar will draw out the juices of the fruit, making a syrup.
- Strain off the fruit (you can either eat the solids or discard them) and add vinegar to the syrup.
- This gets bottled and placed back in the fridge. (Technically, a shrub doesn't need to be refrigerated; the entire point of the vinegar and sugar is to preserve the fruit juice without refrigeration. But if you have the space in your fridge, it won't hurt the shrub.)
A cold process, I've found, produces brighter, fruitier flavors than a hot process. One way to hot-process shrub is to simply combine the fruit and sugar with a little water in a pan on the stovetop. Cook the ingredients until a syrup forms. Cool it down, add vinegar, and bottle.
Another way to hot-process shrub—a method, I hasten to add, that I've never tried—is to add fruit to a jar, pour on some heated vinegar, and let that sit for a week, shaking each day. At week's end, you discard the fruit, add sugar, and shake well to dissolve the sugar. It's ready to drink at this point.
A Note on Vinegars
When I discussed shrubbing last year, I said I used either red wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar. Later that same summer, I branched out for the first time, using champagne vinegar with peaches to make a peach shrub. My reasoning was that peaches have a more delicate flavor than most berries do, and so I wanted a more delicate vinegar to accompany the peach flavor. The resulting shrub was delicious.
This summer, I've started branching out even more. Both shrubs I'll discuss today used balsamic vinegars. In the first case, Strawberry–Lemon Thyme Shrub, I used a blend of balsamic and sherry vinegars. I didn't want to go purely balsamic because it seemed it might be too rich, so I chose sherry vinegar, which I thought would complement both the berries and the balsamic.
For the second shrub, Peach and Ginger, I used another blend; this time, it was white balsamic (again, wanted some delicacy here) and apple cider. I wanted the richness of the balsamic, but to keep it from being too rich, I cut it with the cider vinegar. Apples and ginger are a pretty common flavor pairing, so I knew the cider would complement the ginger, but I was guessing it would complement the peach flavor, too, and it certainly did.
Another Note on Sugars
Another alteration from last year's technique. I've tried using about half as much sugar as before. A couple of commenters last year said that my recipe sounded too sugary, and I figured I'd try cutting back. I'm satisfied with the smaller amount. I think it makes for a successful product, and there's still enough sweetness to counter the vinegar's tarty contributions.
Some shrubbers use turbinado, demerara, or other, more flavorful sugars. I have not yet branched out that way, although I would love to.
Variables, Always Variables
Cold process, hot process. White, cider, sherry, champagne, balsamic, coconut vinegar. White sugar, brown, turbinado, demerara.
These are the variables that make shrubbing so much fun, and honestly so hard to screw up. The techniques are simple. The biggest variable is personal taste. Want a little less ginger in your Peach and Ginger Shrub? Go for it. More sugar? That's fine. My recipes are just guidelines, and tweaks and refinements are totally encouraged.
Strawberry–Lemon Thyme Shrub
My first attempt at a more complicated shrub started with strawberries and lemon thyme with a blend of vinegars. Strawberries and thyme are commonly paired in jams and pies, so why not in shrubs?
I started with Tristar strawberries, which are particularly dense and flavorful. I mashed them up for my normal cold process and added a few sprigs of lemon thyme. I wanted to try to ensure that the oils from the thyme mingled with the berry juice, so I pressed well on the leaves to express their flavorful oils.
I added sugar to this mixture, stirred everything well, and placed the bowl in the fridge. After a day, I had an intensely berry-flavored syrup, but couldn't taste the thyme. I racked off the solids at this point, but then I took a few more thyme sprigs, pressed them until the kitchen smelled like thyme, and added them to the syrup. I went ahead and added vinegar, not really sure what would result.
After another day, I had ... well, I had strawberry shrub. It tastes great, but it doesn't carry any of the lemon-thyme accents I wanted.
I then made a simple syrup with extra lemon thyme, and added that to the shrub. Still didn't carry the flavor I wanted. Back to the drawing board on this one. I could perhaps leave the thyme in the shrub for 7–10 days and see whether that deepens the flavor, or I could try cooking the berries, thyme, and sugar together, in a hot-processed shrub.
My other attempt, I'm happy to report, was more successful. I started with a pound of peach seconds—fresh peaches that are bruised, battered, or otherwise too ugly to be sold as is. Seconds, if you can get them, are perfect for shrub-making and they'll save you some money.
I brought them home, pitted them, and mashed them into a bowl. I added eight ounces of sugar and about one third cup grated ginger. I left that in the fridge overnight. I wanted the ginger flavor to be subtle but undeniably present, and this method achieved that goal perfectly.