I love Shrubs, and I don’t mean the woody bushy plants I have in my garden. Shrub’s also known as ‘drinking vinegars’ are one of my favourite discoveries and until about 6 months ago I had never even heard of them! A Shrub, is basically a fruit syrup that is preserved with vinegar. Sounds gross…but bear with me, it truly isn’t. The acid flavour of the vinegar is balanced out by fruit and sugar to make a delicious sweet and sour drink that lasts 6 months in the fridge. They are wonderfully refreshing mixed with still or carbonated water and the perfect replacement for bitters in a cocktail. Depending on flavour, they also make a yummy marinade or salad dressing base. Some people even swap out the vinegar for alcohol to produce a kind of fruit Liqueur Shrub. I’ve yet to try this, but it’s certainly on my to-do list for Christmas!
Shrubs have a long history. They were one of the first soft drinks, popular in public houses in 17th and 18th Century England and in Colonial America up to the 19th Century. Like jams and jellies, they were a traditional means of preserving fruit but fell out of favour with the advent of refrigeration. They have been making a comeback recently with the resurgence of traditional unprocessed foods and you can actually find them on the shelves of stores in big cities and in the cocktail menus of trendy bars…but as with most things, homemade shrubs are far better. As someone aiming at self-sufficiency with a garden full of fruit, I’m always looking for ways to extend the harvest from my garden and given that I also make my own vinegar, shrubs are a cheap and easy means to do just that.
Ingredients and Ratios
The ideal ratio for a shrub is 1:1:1, i.e. equal parts fruit liquid, to vinegar, to sugar. In the main, I tend to stick to that. You can mess with the ratios to make something more in line with your personal tastes, but read the information below to make sure that you understand the implications of tweaking the standard ratios.
Sugar acts as a preservative in the shrub. High sugar syrups have a much longer shelf life than low sugar, so if you reduce the quantity, be aware that you are also reducing the shelf life of the shrub. Nevertheless, sugar is not the ingredient that makes the product safe, acidity is needed for this. I am therefore happy to make versions with slightly less sugar, but I tend to stick with a high vinegar ratio. I use raw sugar in my shrubs.
I tend to use raw apple cider vinegar and other homemade fruit vinegars in my shrubs as I always have it on hand. Some taste combinations however, work great with vinegars I don’t produce myself, such as Balsamic vinegar, Coconut Vinegar and White Wine vinegar. When making a batch of Shrubs I sit down with different wine glasses with a small sample of vinegar in each and taste each sample with the fruit I have on hand to decide what combination would work best. Full disclosure here, I love vinegar. My mouth waters even when I use it for cleaning (very strange I know!) and I drank it from the bottle as a child whenever I got the chance. So whilst I’m fine with vinegar tasting, it may be a bit much for many people, if so just experiment and find what you like best through trial and error. I find white wine vinegar, coconut vinegar and apple cider vinegar work with most things.
The vinegar in the shrub is the ingredient that is safely preserving it, so whilst you can alter the type of vinegar you use, be careful not to over dilute it. If using low acid fruits the vinegar concentration used should be 4.5% acetic acid or higher, and should not be diluted to a ratio more than 50:50 water (in this case fruit juice) to vinegar. Depending on the fruit however, the juice may already be fairly acidic, for example lemon juice is 5-6%, so you can drop your vinegar concentration to 4%. Commercial vinegars are required to list the acid percentage on the bottle, but it can be more tricky if you are using homemade vinegar. If in doubt, you can test your vinegar using an acid titration kit purchased from a brewing/wine-making shop or on Ebay. If you find the concentration of vinegar is too strong, rather than diluting further, try adding more sugar or some honey. If using citrus, adding the zest or peel can also increase the fruit taste without significantly contributing to the water content. The same can be said of herbs and spices.
Fruit and aromatics/herbs
You can mix and match fruits, herbs and aromatics as much as you like depending on what you have on hand and your preferred flavour combinations. I have used cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, fresh mint, cardamom and black pepper with success and a whole range of different fruits including blackberries, pineapple, strawberries, oranges, lemons, limes grapefruit, blueberries, raspberries, passion fruit, mango and rhubarb! I match the amount of juice from the fruit to the amount of sugar and vinegar. Some fruits are juicier than others so, for example, you will require more passionfruit or strawberry guava fruits to make the same quantity of liquid that you would get from the same weight of oranges or lemons. With citrus fruits I also add the zest or peel for a stronger fruit flavour.
There are two main ways to make a shrub, hot and cold process. Hot process is the faster method, and involves cooking up the sugar in water, integrating the fruit, allowing the mixture to cool then adding the vinegar immediately and bottling. I prefer the cold process method outlined here. It takes more time, but I believe yields a better tasting end product.
- Juicer (depending on fruit used)
- Meat tenderizer, wooden spoon or other implement suitable for mashing fruit
- Large non-reactive bowl
- Cheesecloth/butter muslin/nut milk bag
- Scales, measuring cups and spoons
Step 2. Mash berries using meat tenderizer, the back of a spoon or other suitable implement.
Step 2. Add sugar to the mashed berries and then stir. Leave the mixture in the fridge for 24 hours. The sugar will draw the juices out of the fruit to form a syrup.
Step 3. After 24 hours, strain the liquid from the fruit using a colander and cheesecloth with a bowl/jug beneath. I generally use a nut-milk bag as it’s much easier to clean and use than cheesecloth. Squeeze out all juices either using your hands or by pressing down on the fruit with the back of a large spoon.
Step 4. Add vinegar to the syrup and any herbs/spices/aromatics.
Step 5. Pour into a clean bottle or jar, then keep in the fridge for at least a week to allow the flavours to intensify before drinking.
When using Citrus
Step 1. Thoroughly wash the fruit, then remove peel. Scrape as much pith from the peel as possible using a knife before chopping it into small pieces (alternatively you can grate the zest, but being a bit clumsy, when I grate such things it often leads to blood and minced fingers).
Step 2. Squeeze the juice from the fruit until you have the desired quantity. Mix the sugar with both the peel and the juice. Allow to stand in the fridge for 24 hours.
Step 3. Follow from Step 3 on the Berry method outlined above.
Back in the day, the entire point of a shrub was to make the fruit shelf-stable. Although the acid and sugar should be enough to store this drink at room temperature for an extended period, given that I am not canning it properly I keep it in the fridge and drink it within six months to be extra safe.
Recipes from our garden
Here are the recipes from the latest batch of shrubs I made using produce from the garden. If you experiment with different flavour combinations I would love to hear all about your favourites in the comments section below. Enjoy!
Strawberry Guava, Balsamic and Black Peppercorn
- 750g Strawberry guava
- 500g Raw sugar
- 500ml Balsamic vinegar
- Ground black peppercorns to taste (optional)
Grapefruit and Coconut Vinegar Shrub (Fabulous in a Gin Fizz cocktail)
- 500ml Grapefruit juice plus peel
- 500g Raw sugar
- 500ml Coconut vinegar
Orange and ginger shrub (Perfect match for navy rum)
- 1 -2 Tablespoons grated ginger
- 500ml Orange juice plus peel
- 500ml Raw Apple Cider Vinegar
- 500g Raw Sugar
Lemon Lime shrub
- 250ml Lemon juice plus peel
- 250ml Lime juice plus peel
- 500ml White wine vinegar
- 500g Raw sugar