What's old is new again. Drinking vinegars, a vintage style of drink once considered a healthful tonic or a useful way to preserve a bounty of fruit, are back in a big way.
Whether you call them shrubs (a name derived from the Arabic sharbah, which means "a drink"), squash, switchels or infusions, these refreshing nonalcoholic, fermented syrups are made from lushly ripe (or imperfect) fruit, sugar and vinegar. Fresh herbs or other aromatics, like ginger root, citrus zest and whole spices, can add complexity.
Steeping these mixtures for several days allows the flavors to bloom, creating balanced sweet-sour mixers that are as well suited to an icy pour of sparkling water as to a splash of rum. And creative bartenders are reaching beyond bitters to fermented shrubs to rev up cocktails. A fanciful margarita, boosted by a luscious sweet and sour blackberry-lime syrup and rimmed with a lime-spiked herb salt, will brighten any party.
The methods for making shrubs can vary, depending on the ingredients. My favorite way is the least complicated, which works beautifully with berries: a cold-brew mix of equal parts fruit, sugar and vinegar. First, muddle or lightly mash the fruit — the back of a wooden spoon or potato masher works well — in a large bowl, then transfer it to a large glass canning jar. Mix in the sugar and pour the vinegar over it all, then tightly seal the jar and give it a good shake. The sludgy-looking mix can be strained within 24 hours, but I like to refrigerate it for up to four days. I'll swish the jar around a bit whenever I open the fridge. Once the solids are strained out, the resulting thickened sweet-tart syrup is like liquid gold that can be used to flavor sparkling water or cocktails, and even as a base for marinades and vinaigrettes.
To really jazz up the most basic fruit-sugar-vinegar combo, experiment with adding whole spices or dried herb or flower petals. Simmering them in equal parts of water and sugar will create a simple syrup that's then mixed with vinegar and mashed ripe fruit. As with the cold-brew process, wait a few days for the hydrated ingredients to fully infuse their taste and color into the mix.
Some like to toss the fruit and sugar in a large sterilized container and then pour in boiling vinegar to cover it all. This can be fermented for several days, safely, at room temperature before straining. But all in all, the cold process is the simplest, with a guarantee of creating delicious syrups with little effort.
We're still in the heart of fruit season — blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, cherries, plums and apricots are abundant, while early fall melons and grapes are peaking. Play with what you can buy at farmers markets or harvest yourself, and tweak the sweet-tart ratio to suit your personal taste.
The world of sweeteners and vinegars is vast; don't limit yourself to plain sugar and cider vinegar. The versatility and stability of shrub syrups — the acidity of vinegar allows them to be made well ahead of serving — make them the perfect off-the-shelf drink mixer.
Try these bracing elixirs
• Strawberries + granulated sugar + red wine vinegar, with a splash of balsamic vinegar
• Nectarines + turbinado sugar + white wine vinegar, with sprigs of fresh tarragon
• Pears + maple syrup + cider vinegar, with slices of fresh ginger and cardamom pods
• Grapes or chopped pineapple (try roasting them first) + granulated sugar + white wine vinegar, with a splash of white balsamic vinegar and a few sprigs of fresh thyme
• Blood oranges or tangerines + coconut sugar + coconut vinegar, with a few star anise
Versatile ways to use shrubs
• Use the macerated (marinated) fruit that you sieve out in smoothies or to make tangy salsas to serve alongside grilled or roasted poultry.
• Marinate fish or shrimp in a splash of shrub syrup for about 30 minutes before cooking.
• Heat up 1 cup of a shrub syrup, swirling it at a low boil until reduced by half. Use it as a glaze on grilled meats or seafood — or roasted root vegetables or autumn fruits.
• Whisk 1/3 cup of shrub syrup with 1/2 cup olive oil, tossing in a small spoonful of finely chopped shallot and a squeeze of fresh lemon. Season to taste with coarse salt and freshly ground pepper for a complex salad vinaigrette.
Blue and Black Berry Ginger Shrubs
Makes about 2 3/4 cups syrup.
Note: Feel free to play with the ratio of berries, depending on what is ultra-ripe and available. Late-harvest fruit is especially flavorful. I've even subbed in the last of the plums from my tree, pitting and chopping them up to stir in with a handful of berries. I prefer to use organic cane sugar, but granulated sugar works just as well. From Lisa Golden Schroeder.
• 1 pint (2 c.) fresh blueberries
• 1 c. fresh blackberries
• 1 1/2 c. organic cane sugar (see Note)
• 2 c. unfiltered apple cider vinegar
• 1/4 c. coarsely grated fresh ginger
• 2 sprigs fresh lemon verbena or a few pieces of bruised lemongrass, if desired
Place berries in a glass bowl or large canning jar. Crush the berries with the back of a wooden spoon, muddler or potato masher until they're pulpy.
Pour in sugar and vinegar; stir in ginger and mix well. Add the sprigs of herb, if using. Cover the bowl or seal the jar tightly. Refrigerate for at least 24 hours or up to 4 days.
Strain the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve or cheesecloth into a clean bottle or jar.
Store the syrup in the fridge for up to 1 month. Serve a small amount over ice, topped with sparkling water, or use in cocktails.
Raspberry Hibiscus Sparklers
Makes about 3 cups syrup.
Note: Look for the hibiscus petals in Latin grocery stores, where they're labeled flor de Jamaica. They impart a deep crimson hue and floral essence that melds nicely with the fresh raspberries. From Lisa Golden Schroeder.
• 1 1/2 c. water
• 1 c. dried hibiscus petals (see Note)
• 1 pint (2 c.) fresh raspberries
• 1 c. honey or agave syrup
• 1 c. red-wine vinegar
• 1 tbsp. grated lemon zest
• 2 sprigs fresh Thai basil or lavender, if desired
Bring water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Stir in the hibiscus petals; remove from heat and allow the petals to steep for 30 minutes.
Strain the liquid into a large jar (discard the flower petals). Add the berries, honey, vinegar and lemon zest. Lightly mash the berries with a wooden spoon or muddler. Add the herb, if using.
Seal the jar; refrigerate for at least 24 hours or up to 4 days.
Strain the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve or cheesecloth into a clean jar. Refrigerate the syrup for up to 1 month. Serve a small amount over ice with sparkling water with additional berries and herb sprigs.
Spicy Melon-Mint Shrub
Makes about 2 1/2 cups syrup.
Note: Add thin slices of fresh Fresno or jalapeño peppers to each glass to bump up the spice. Nectarines, peaches or mango would all be nice twists if you're without a ripe melon. To more quickly develop the flavors, purée the melons in a blender. Then mix with the remainder of the ingredients. From Lisa Golden Schroeder.
• 2 1/2 c. cubed ripe cantaloupe, honeydew or watermelon (see Note)
• 1 1/2 c. honey or coconut sugar
• 2 c. white-wine vinegar
• 3 large fresh mint sprigs
• 6 black peppercorns
• 1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes
Place melon in a large glass bowl or canning jar. Crush melon with the back of a wooden spoon, muddler or potato masher.
Stir in honey and vinegar; mix well. Add mint, peppercorns and pepper flakes.
Cover or seal tightly; refrigerate for at least 24 hours or up to 4 days, stirring (or shaking, if in a jar) occasionally.
Strain the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve or cheesecloth into a clean jar. Refrigerate the syrup for up to 1 month. Serve a small amount over ice with sparkling water.
Lisa Golden Schroeder is a Minnesota freelance writer and food stylist.