If you have just one from-scratch ingredient for your home bar, it should be a shrub. Not to be confused with the bushy plants around your house, this kind of shrub is a vinegar syrup. And though the shrub is having something of a resurgence of late, shrubs are actually an old-fashioned thing. The tart and fruity syrups were originally a preservation technique, a way to make rapidly rotting fruit into a concentrated syrup that could last much longer.
Shrubs are definitely one of the more laid-back kitchen projects you can take on. At its most elemental, a shrub is one part vinegar, one part sugar, and one part chopped fruit. Beyond that, shrubs invite a wide variety of additional flavorings. Get creative as you infuse your shrub with herbs and even spices. You can use one type of vinegar or a combination and mix up your fruit choices as well to put your stamp on any given recipe.
Shrub makers fall into two camps in terms of technique: Hot or cold. When you use heat to dissolve the sugar and blend the flavors, your shrub is ready more quickly. However, if you use time instead of heat to bring your shrub together–the cold method–you’ll be rewarded with more vivid flavors that taste fresh rather than cooked. Hot or cold, the active time is about the same, but there is a day or two of hands-off waiting while the magic happens in the refrigerator for the cold method.
How to Use Shrubs
The simplest way to enjoy your shrub is to combine it with plain old sparkling water. How much? Well, that can vary a lot from person to person. If you have a sweet tooth, you might add ¼ cup shrub to a pint glass and top with seltzer. One tablespoon of shrub will give your bubbles a lightly sweet, tart, and fruity quality. It makes for a natural, refreshing, low-calorie sipper.
Shrubs also lend themselves to cocktails. Here’s a cheat sheet: Choose your base spirit, and add a shrub, a secondary liqueur, and finish with a few drops of bitters. Let your palate be your guide as you mix and match. The simplest way to start is by adding your shrub to taste to a vodka tonic. You’ll see how shrubs can take even a potentially dull cocktail and give it some life.
Truly, you need little more than to remember that ratio (one part vinegar to one part sugar to one part fruit by weight) to get started. The simplicity of shrub-making lends itself to experimentation. But here are some recipes and ideas to make you thirsty:
Berry shrubs, especially raspberry, may be the most traditional shrubs of all. In fact, this Raspberry Shrub is actually based on recipes from the housekeeping manuals of the 19th and early 20th centuries. This one mixes red wine and champagne vinegar for a festive ruby red result. Sweet blueberries and tart lemon always work well together. Using the fragrant lemon zest in this Blueberry Lemon Shrub gives it an extra zing. A spoonful of this shrub could dress up a simple salad dressing. During peak strawberry season you want to use as many of those sweet babies as you can. This Strawberry Basil Shrub will help you carry that fresh strawberry feeling through the summer and into the fall … if you make enough. Try swapping tarragon for the basil for an unusual but alluring combo.
Of course, you can make cocktails or mocktails with this Cherry Balsamic Shrub. The sweet, floral notes imparted by a split vanilla bean make it a simple stunner spooned over vanilla ice cream for dessert or Greek yogurt for breakfast.
When you’ve picked a few more peaches, plums, or nectarines at the U-pick farm than you can really handle, this flexible Stone Fruit Shrub will save the day. Use just one variety or any combination of stone fruit for this easy summertime recipe. (Want it during the winter? Frozen peaches work, too.)
Grapefruit’s balance of citrusy sweetness and serious bitterness makes it a wonderful fruit to shrub-ify. Try this recipe for Grapefruit Basil Shrub to taste for yourself. The use of champagne vinegar makes this one feel extra celebratory and makes it a natural addition for a champagne cocktail.
Are you ready for something different? Put on some gloves (you’ll be peeling finger-staining boiled beets), and make this Black Pepper Beet Shrub. It’s earthy and spicy in exactly the right way.
How to Store Shrubs
Once you’ve picked your favorites and gone shopping, remember that patience is a virtue. Your shrub will be usable soon after you first make it, but its flavors will age and mature over time. Stored in a sealed container (recommended for ease of use: squeeze bottles), shrubs last in the refrigerator a year, if you can keep them around that long.