Monday, July 25, 2011

Intro To Shrubs

If the old adage is true that everything old shall be new again, then one would be hard pressed to find many emerging trends that stretch as far back into our culinary traditions as the tasty, centuries old potable vinegar concoction known to some as shrubs, but more easily described to the uninitiated as simply, "drinking vinegars."

Drinking vinegars have been around since at least America's colonial beginnings. In those days, lack of refrigeration led to the use of preservative methods such as jarring and canning. In the case of fruit, on method in particular involved the use of sugar, fresh fruit, and vinegar. Ultimately, while this preserved the fruit, Colonial settlers realized that in the dog days of summer, mixing the resulting syrup with a glass of cool water was not a half bad way to ward off the heat, and keep the appetite up. For those with a decidedly more bibulous bent, shrub offered another valuable service; the fruity little potion that could was mixed with the less than pristine American rum that was popping up all over the Eastern portion of the United States. Instead of simply choking down the nightmarish sugar based sludge alone, shrub was able to mask the taste of impurities and potentially...challenging flavors it exhibited.

Putting aside the exciting trappings of that history lesson, you are probably wanting to ask, "Why on God's green earth would I want to drinking something that hasn't been particularly popular since people in tri-corner hats were riding around in uncomfortable clothes and imbibing questionable liquor?"

The answer is actually quite simple: it's damned delicious.

Unlike some of the other popular recipes of America's past, lost to the ravages of time and indifference, shrubs deserve another shot in the spotlight because they exhibit many of the qualities that a discerning modern audience would look for in a beverage. It's fresh, natural, and above all, unusual.

Despite how amazing the shrub recipes of old taste, my purpose here is to take the shrub's humble simplicity and go nuts with its flavors. In essence, I want to make bold, exciting drinking vinegars that make those adventurous souls light up with excitement at the unusual combinations of flavors I try.

There are multiple components to making a shrub, but getting a basic one together is pretty simple. Neyah White, a well known bartender turned brand ambassador, spent a good deal of time perfecting house made shrubs for the bar program during his tenure at famed San Francisco bar NOPA. While he shared many interesting observations on the art of shrub making here, for our current purposes this is what you need to know:

A decent baseline recipe for cold process shrub is  one part fruit, one part sugar, and one part vinegar. Mash the sugar with the fruit in a non-reactive container, cover and wait 5-6 hours until a syrup forms. Hit it with the vinegar, and let the mixture sit for a week, and then strain all the solids. Bingo.

Granted, you may or may not want to drink that right away; the flavors at this stage are like three talented, but forceful singers who are all used to singing solo, and need time to learn how to harmonize. Wait another week and you've got the liquid equivalent of The Supremes.

But the above is simply a baseline. It's up to the person making the shrub to look at the components and make the necessary adjustments to get that harmony. Making the adjustment between sugar and fruit is  simple enough, but it seems that the vinegar is the biggest wild card in the process. Each vinegar has its own character and personality which can markedly alter your final product. Let's look at a few different varieties, shall we?

Wine Vinegars: As one might suspect, these vinegars are made from, well, wine. Like wine itself, there are white and red varieties of wine vinegar, some of which are made from specific wines(Champagne Vinegar, Sherry Vinegar, Ice Wine Vinegar.) These can clock in at from anywhere 5% percent to about 7% acidity, with certain styles being more acidic while others are more gentle and even. One size does not fit all; some regular white wine vinegars are great if you're looking to emphasize the fruit, others like certain champagne vinegars bring a sharper, acidic note without the overwhelming aroma you can get with apple cider vinegar.

Apple Cider Vinegar: Apple Cider Vinegar or ACV is commonly used in shrub making. Cider vinegar is made from apple must(young pressed juice containing, skins, seeds, etc.). The taste and smell of ACV is sharper and more acidic than wine vinegars, which means you'll want to be careful with how much you use. For those who like it particularly tangy, go ahead and use ACV for the entire amount. However, if you are looking for a more rounded approach, you might split it down the middle with a wine vinegar or a balsamic. Using ACV in combination with a balsamic can be a good choice as it can be quite rich on its own.

Balsamic Vinegar: Balsamic vinegar is an rich, aged vinegar which is made from the concentrated must of grapes. True balsamic vinegars are usually aged from 15-20 years, though some are aged longer. Be aware that commercial balsamic is usually just concentrated grape juice mixed with a strong vinegar. In terms of shrub making, balsamic can be an interesting weapon in your arsenal. It lends a deeper, richer flavor than other vinegars which not only pairs well with any number of fruits, such as strawberry and raspberry, but can give the resulting shrub more of a decadent after dinner feel. One of the drawbacks, however, of using balsamic, is that it may well overtake the delicate nature of the fruit if it is the sole vinegar in your batch. It may be a good idea to change the ratio and dilute it with a lighter vinegar, or a particularly sharper one to cut through the syrupy richness of the balsamic to give the final product more balance.

Coconut Vinegar: Often coconut vinegar is produced from fresh, young coconut water, but there are some brands that ferment the sap instead. Either way, this vinegar has a sharp, funky, earthy flavor. While it has a different smell and flavor than ACV, it is similar in its sharpness. It appears as the main vinegar in several of Pok Pok's commercially available Som drinking vinegars.

Fruit Vinegar: Fruit vinegars are usually wine vinegars of a different fashion, in that they are made from fruit wines. These vinegars usually retain the distinct flavor of the fruit used. Raspberry vinegar, for example, is one that I commonly see in the local grocery. This could be a good choice if you want a mild vinegar, or want to bolster or compliment the fruit flavor of the actual fruits you are using in the shrub.

Rice Vinegar: There are typically three types of rice vinegar which are mostly popular for food use in Asia: white rice vinegar, black rice vinegar, and red rice vinegar. Of the three, white is said to be mild and only slightly acidic. This could possibly be a good choice for tempering the strong flavor of another vinegar in your mix.

With a multitude of vinegars, there are plenty of ways to coax interesting flavors out of your materials. What will make each of these unique will be the various trial and error in putting together different sugars with different vinegars and fruits, which I am hoping, will also be be part of the fun.

Let me say up front that I am not claiming to be an expert. This is almost as new for me as it is for all of you. I cannot promise everything I attempt here will work. I can't even promise some of what I come up will be drinkable. What I can say, however, is that I'm ready to start sharing my work with you, the audience. I hope you'll experiment along and share your thoughts with me.

So, for those of you who are still awake and curious to try your hand at these unique and admittedly unusual potables, I urge you to grab your tools, slip into something you don't mind getting dirty, and meet me in the kitchen.

I feel like makin' shrub with you.

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