The Shrub

By Kate Payne
Photography by Jo Ann Santangelo

It’s not news that pickled fruits make great snacks. But it turns out that the leftover syrup in the jar makes a fabulous beverage, for both the saucy and the chaste. After Portlandia’s “I-can-pickle-that” spirit has its way with the pantry, enter phase two: the shrub.

A shrub, the kind you drink, not trim, is made from a fruit-infused vinegar syrup that’s sweetened and diluted with club soda or still water.

The word “shrub” is derived from the Arabic verb shariba, which means “to drink or sip,” and thanks to an Arabic-speaking friend weighing in on the matter, I learned that the noun form of the word—pronounced sharAAB—translates to “drink,” “wine,” “fruit juice” or “fruit syrup,” depending on the context. The pre-18th-century English shrubs as beverages were more like ultra-concentrated boozy cordials, and their predecessors, medicinal extracts, were made without any vinegar at all. Alcohol and sugar in large quantities—think rumtopf or bachelor’s jam—were the preservative factors signature to these premade punch starters or flavor boosters typically used to jazz up barrels of distilled alcohol tainted by seawater. As delicious as this may sound, I think the 18th-century Americans had it right when they decided to pour vinegar over fruit and let its solvent nature extract summer’s fleeting flavors. 

The American incarnation of shrubs evolved from our agrarian past, small-scale, regional sustenance farming and the lack of refrigeration technology. Family farms had fruit trees and berry bushes and needed a way to preserve spring and summer without freezers and refrigerators. Beyond the volume of fruit going into wines, meads and ciders, harvested fruit was either covered with sugar, left to macerate for a day or two and then doused in vinegar or vice versa: covered in vinegar for a few days then cooked with sugar into a syrup. The fruit was strained out and this shelf-stable concoction was kept in reserve for flavoring water, possibly making it safer to drink by way of the vinegar content.

The earliest colonial recipes involved raspberries, an abundance “dilemma” we don’t face in Central Texas, but shrubs come in all fruit shapes and sizes. I began my shrub-making days with the overage from my cautious fruit-pickling endeavors. It’s shattering to go through a canning recipe meticulously and discover a brine deficiency when it comes time to fill the jars. After one such disaster, I made a point to always increase the brine volume when canning fruit pickles knowing—or hoping, really—that fruity, vinegary syrup excess would be a possibility. I can the jars of syrup alongside the jars of fruit pickles.

There’s no one right way to make a shrub. Use plain and simple white vinegar as a solid base for developing other flavors, or try apple cider vinegar, red or white wine vinegar or Champagne vinegar. To any of the above vinegars as a base, add a splash of balsamic vinegar to further develop the shrub’s complexity, or add fresh ginger, herbs and various spices to vinegar or syrup infusions to layer the flavors.

GrapefruitShrubSyrup

Beyond the limitless flavor possibilities, the business of shrub making may be accomplished in a number of ways. The easiest method by far is to use leftover syrup from a jar of pickled fruit. When no fruit pickles are available, the magic formula to remember is 1:1:1, or one part each fruit, vinegar and sugar or syrup. My preferred method is a cold infusion, but others may choose to heat the fruit in the vinegar to kick off the infusion differently. Alternative sugars are fine, but eliminating one of the preservative aspects (sugar) from the mix might decrease the shelf life of the shrub concentrate. Check the concentrate before use to ensure there are no signs of bubbling or mold.

One exception to the master ratio above is a shrub that happens often around this house. I use our home-fermented fruit-scrap vinegars, add a bit of honey or agave directly to the vinegar and top it off with fizzy water. A raw, live-cultured shrub! (Learn to make apple cider vinegar in the Fall 2012 issue; use other kinds of fruit scraps to personalize drinking vinegars via that method.)

Seasonal Shrub • Meyer Lemon Spice Syrup • Grapefruit Shrub Syrup