Lately, it seems like some new food trends in particular are not so new after all.
Take shrubs (also called drinking vinegars), for instance – and no, I don’t mean the bushes in your front yard!
I’m talking about a mixture made for cocktails, sodas, and other beverages that involves soaking (and potentially fermenting) fruits, juices, and herbs in vinegar to make a tangy, sweet syrup.
These flavorful beverage additions are popular at both juice and liquor bars nowadays. But really, this method is as old as the pioneers who trekked across America.
These ancestors used shrubs to preserve fruits and aromatic herbs for long, arduous journeys. They weren’t just made for staving off spoilage, however – they also helped to make medicinal herbs last longer, and even taste better.
These old-time medicines tasted so good in fact that they began creeping their way into the bars, saloons, and cantinas of the Old West for their flavors alone.
Today, many are becoming a trendy part of signature cocktails and aperitifs, like they once were as rustic relics of the past.
But even better – shrubs can be healthy!
With the selection of raw vinegars and certain fruits or herbs available, drinks and mocktails made with shrubs can be teeming with probiotics and digestive enzymes – the perfect aperitif, as well as a digestive healer.
And yes – you can make them yourself, which we’ll take a look at in this article. It’s quite easy!
What’s in Them?
What’s in shrubs? What exactly makes a shrub a shrub – and with so many flavors, what ingredients can you put in them?
The better question, though – what CAN’T you put in them (besides the obvious, of course)? I can say confidently that there’s potentially thousands of different recipes out there!
In fact, to get the full spectrum of what you can make with them, I would encourage you to get your hands on this wonderful recipe book, Shrubs: An Old Fashioned Drink For Modern Times by Michael Dietsch, which I have paged through myself and drawn inspiration from. It’s a real help!
Here are some examples:
- You could make a strawberry version, with a bit of mint.
- Make an apple shrub, which would make a great addition to an already apple-spiked delicious cocktail.
- Or, go even sweeter, with pineapple and something that pairs well with it – maybe ginger, or even lime juice.
- I’ve also seen some intriguing savory ingredients too, such as sun gold tomatoes, or even beets for an earthier alternative.
Homemade shrubs offer so many possibilities. When crafting them, a good thing to remember is that you’re going after a trifecta of ingredients.
You choose a main fruit (or two), a tasty herb to match (maybe more), and finally, a juice to round it off.
There’s also the simple option: making a single ingredient concoction or a less complicated pairing, which works best when you choose just one or two fruits, or a fruit and an herb.
You may also end up adding some sugar at the end, to make the mixture more drinkable and balanced against the vinegar’s acidity. Some (like myself), who would prefer less sugar for a healthier treat (and who don’t mind a stronger acidic taste) can hold off on the sugar at their discretion.
Besides the basic ingredients, there’s a lot more to these delicious refreshments than meets the eye – especially health-wise, which we’ll get to a little later.
Here is my basic formula for shrub-making along with many of my DIY herbal recipes.
This specific formula was inspired by chef Mary Karlin’s recipe found here, via Mastering Fermentation.
Some important notes: you must use some form of raw vinegar in this recipe if you want fermentation to happen, to access all of those beneficial probiotics!
Further, you may notice (especially after the straining process) that your packed-full jar yields a skimpy amount of liquid.
If this happens, don’t fret! Just remember: you will be adding some juice in towards the end of the recipe – both to adjust the taste, and pad out the volume.
In addition to the ingredients listed in the recipe below, you’ll also need:
- 1-quart mason jar (clean, with lid and ring)
- Wooden spoon, pestle, or muddler
- Cheesecloth or thin, clean rag of breathable material (with fine holes)
- Strainer (stainless steel)
- Parchment or wax paper
Cooking by the Numbers…
Step 1 – Chop Ingredients
Before you begin, make sure to get all your ingredients chopped up – including any herbs, too, but fruits (and possibly veggies) will need it the most.
This helps break them all up, making their essences, flavors, healthy compounds, vitamins, and minerals extract much easier into the vinegar.
The more you break up the surface area of your ingredients – in other words, the smaller you chop them up – the more flavor you’ll have for a more interesting shrub!
Step 2 – Pack Your Jar
Once you’re satisfied with your chopping spree, it’s time to put everything in your quart mason jar.
If the measurements of this recipe don’t fill up the jar all the way – no problem! If you have a little extra to give, or you want the flavor of one ingredient to stand out more against another, put it right on in posthaste.
Then on to the next part: with a wooden spoon (or, fancy muddler or pestle) churn up, smash, press, and stir the ingredients to get them ready for the next step: vinegar.
Step 3 – Cover With Vinegar
Next, pour your vinegar over your chopped and muddled ingredients, until everything is completely submerged (if some bits float, push them down gently with your wooden spoon or muddler until they are).
Leave about 1 inch of air space under the rim. Your fermentation will do better with a bit of oxygen!
As the recipe up above says, my preference is for raw apple cider vinegar – most notably the Bragg’s brand, which still includes bits of the mother of vinegar, and makes the perfect catalyst for fermentation.
However, other raw vinegars can work, such as coconut or red wine vinegar – just as long as it’s raw.
In some instances, types other than apple cider may work better flavor-wise with certain fruits and herbs you choose, so keep that in mind!
If you want to give it another stir and smash with your wooden spoon again, feel free to go ahead (and it can’t hurt).
Step 4 – Cover With Cheesecloth
Take your cheesecloth (or a thin, clean, breathable washcloth – that works too), and drape it over the mouth of the jar.
Holding the cloth in place, you will want to screw the lid (just the ring – leave the flat metal disc part aside for now) on to the jar over the cloth, so it keeps the cloth in place.
Step 5 – Capture Yeast & Bacteria
Next, you’ll leave this jar out at room temperature for 12 hours, and play the waiting game. Making your shrub in the evening, then letting it sit overnight right on your kitchen counter, works perfectly.
What does this do, waiting with a cloth over your open jar? Well, it helps keep up a barrier against insects and pests, while allowing wild yeasts and lactic acid bacteria (the good guys) to settle in your shrub.
These wild-caught micro-organisms will be the preamble to fermentation over the next week – forming a unique colony of probiotics, alongside the acetic acid bacteria already present in the vinegar.
Want a little extra probiotic action? Leave the jar out on your counter a few extra days, if you’re feeling brave (I do this often). As long as everything’s submerged, no mold or bad stuff should grow.
Step 6 – Seal Jar
After those 12 hours are up, remove the covering cloth and replace it with a piece of wax or parchment paper (make sure it covers the mouth of the jar entirely). You’ll need this as a barrier between the vinegar liquid in the jar and the lid.
And why is that? Because you’ll be fastening on the stainless steel lid again – this time including the flat, covering disc part, so you can fully capture and let your wild micro-organisms colonize and carbonate.
You’ll also be giving your drinking vinegar a good shake here and there, making vinegar wash up against your stainless steel lid.
Vinegar is quite corrosive when it contacts metal, so that parchment paper will prevent black, yucky rust from forming in your concoction!
Step 7 – Shake & Wait
With lid fastened on and parchment paper in place (this is quite important – who wants to shake an open jar of vinegar all over themselves?), you’ll be giving your jar a vigorous shake as often as you can think of it over the next 3 days, keeping your jar at room temperature.
When I make my own, I tend to shake my jar twice per day- once in the morning, and once in the evening. If I remember to do it again anytime in between then, that’s a plus.
Ultimately, 2-3 times per day is optimal, but even more is better.
Shaking up your shrub greatly helps with the fermentation process, as well as giving your creation that syrupy, carbonated texture and flavor that is so wildly popular.
Step 8 – Strain Out Herbs
After 3 days of shaking and patience, unscrew the lid from your jar, and pour all the ingredients out over a strainer and into a bowl – keeping the fruit and herbs held in the strainer, and liquid separate in its bowl.
From the strained matter, pick out as best you can any herbal matter you added in the beginning.
You can use a fork to get most of it out, or food-grade plastic gloves. It’s not a life-or-death matter to pick out every single last piece of the herb – only to get most of it out, so its presence doesn’t overpower the flavors of the fruit or other ingredients that you’ll want to be stronger in your blend.
Step 9 – Shake & Wait… Again
Once you’ve done your best, return the vinegar liquid and fruit all back into the jar.
Replace the parchment paper with a fresh piece, seal it closed with ring and lid again, and this time, you’ll let it sit in the fridge for 4 days, shaking it all the while (2-3 times per day, or as much as you can).
The fermentation process will still happen, but it will be slowed down – allowing the shrub to thicken and chill, especially from all the natural sugars pulled from the fruits.
Step 10 – Strain Out Fruit
Following the 4 days in the fridge, pull your jar out, and this time you’ll strain out all the fruit, keeping the liquid separate in a bowl.
You won’t be keeping it this time – toss it out or compost it. If you feel called to do so, though, try squeezing a little extra vinegar out of the fruits using a spoon or fork through the strainer, or even a gloved hand before you throw it away.
Step 11 – Add Sweetener, Juice & Sprig
This is where the creative part happens (or can happen): it’s time to add your chosen sweetener, juice, and an herbal sprig for a finishing touch.
As for desired juice, lemon and lime work with a lot of fruit and herbal options; but depending on the ingredients you chose in the beginning, others can work too, like orange, grapefruit. Or, try something more “out there.”
The same goes for that herbal sprig. Spearmint is a popular favorite, but don’t limit yourself! Maybe give lemon balm, rosemary, even cinnamon a try.
When putting all ingredients in the jar with your shrub, just remember to continue leaving about 1 inch under the rim for some free airspace.
And of course: feel free to tweak the amounts if you need to. Now is the time to make your concoction taste how you want it – more or less sweet or acidic, but remember that your shrub will still have another week ahead to ferment!
Step 12 – Shake & Wait One More Time
With all ingredients in the jar and set to go, cover it up with the lid again – replacing the old wax paper one last time with a fresh square.
Thus comes the last week of your shrub-making, which consists of 7 days of keeping your jar in the fridge to chill.
Make sure to remember to shake it – 2-3 times per day is optimal!
Step 13 – Enjoy!
After 7 days of refrigeration and shaking, your recipe should be ready!
Give it a taste – and adjust with a bit more sweetness, juice, herbs, or whatever else comes to mind.
Using Your Shrub
Now, how to enjoy your homemade shrub?
If you like making your own cocktails at home, experiment! Depending on the fruits and flavors you’ve chosen, your new creation could add an interesting twist to your favorite refreshing drink.
- A cranberry shrub could add a little extra tang and dimension to that cosmopolitan you love.
- Love Moscow mules? Make a ginger version, perhaps with a citrus fruit included, to add a little kick.
- You can also add your sour syrup to tonic or seltzer water, club soda, or fizzy kombucha for a refreshing beverage or mocktail.
My typical serving ratio: one part shrub to two parts fizzy mixer or other beverage right in your glass, using whatever you choose. It could even be a fruit juice, if you like. Of course, feel free to tweak this ratio to your tastes.
Sans the alcohol (and sugar, if you choose), drinking vinegar beverages can actually be very healthy – a nice alternative to an alcoholic drink if you’re trying to cut down.
How so? Let’s take a look.
Health & Healing Benefits
On their own, shrub drinks and drinking vinegars can be a nice little health booster.
Especially if you opt to use raw apple cider vinegar (which still contains the vinegar mother), you’ll have a beverage chock-full of natural acetic acid bacteria, the same strains that are found in probiotic dairy (like yogurt and kefir).
Letting your shrub do some fermenting will amp up this probiotic activity as well – but here is a more complete list of the potential benefits you can expect in your mocktail.
Take note: if it’s a cocktail, it’s arguable that alcoholic beverages may contain fewer live probiotics, thanks to the addition of the alcohol.
More Vitamins & Minerals
Raw apple cider vinegar preserves nutrients from foods that you add, and has been shown to increase the digestion and absorption of certain minerals in this review written by a registered dietitian.
Polysaccharides, volatile oils, and more healing compounds from the foods you include will be preserved. For example, you’ll get the digestive enzyme bromelain if you add pineapple; or if you choose rosemary, you’ll have rosmarinic acid in your shrub: a powerful antioxidant.
The potential effects of these contents sound fairly promising, especially for a simple, healthy drink you can enjoy at home.
Looking at the science and history, here’s a list of what these humble but delicious beverages may be capable of:
Probiotics from the raw vinegar (boosted by fermentation) replenish your digestive system’s microflora, promoting regularity.
Those with food, seasonal, pollen-, or dust-related allergies may experience relief from probiotics.
Live cultures that can be found in shrubs may attack and prevent the spread of cancer-causing cells, as observed in this study.
Type 2 Diabetes Support
Raw vinegar has been shown to reduce hunger and fasting glucose in the blood, a helpful therapy to diabetics described in a study here.
A combination of digestive powers and reducing fasting glucose can help to achieve or maintain a healthy weight.
When added to prepared foods, a shrub with raw vinegar could help remove bacteria and even added chemicals because of its intense acetic acid amounts while improving taste, as studied here.
With these potential health benefits in tow, using a shrub mocktail as a daily tonic could offer additional help to a few minor ailments and issues, especially where digestion is concerned.
Or you could use it like some people take a daily dose of apple cider vinegar: on its own, or drizzled on meals like fresh salads or stir fries.
Try taking a couple tablespoons a day as a raw vinegar probiotic supplement, especially with a glass of water a half hour to an hour before meals, as an aperitif. This could help with digestion, blood sugar levels, satiety, and apparently nutrient absorption and taste as well!
Make Your Own
I hope this article has inspired the craftsman (or craftswoman) in you to get creative, and start shrub-making!
My experiences with shrubs so far have incited my own culinary creativity, that much is for sure.
Even better – with a few shrubs already fermented and ready to go in my fridge, I will mix and serve myself a healthy, alcohol-free mocktail when the mood strikes, instead of always feeling like I need to wind down with a cocktail or other boozy beverage.
But, come on, sometimes you can’t resist some extra zing and fun from a homemade shrub mixture added to our boozy blackberry lemon cocktail.
Sometimes, these handy shrub concoctions have also helped with minor ailments or digestive upsets – and it has also made a great salad dressing replacement, marinade, and topping!
Please remember to talk with your doctor before using shrubs for health, especially if you have a chronic illness.
Have you made your own shrubs before? What are your experiences, secrets (if you’re willing to share!), favorite ingredients, or tricks?
Talk to us! Comment below in our comments section – I would love to hear from you!
Not sure where to start after you’ve made your shrubs and drinking vinegars? We think a tablespoon or two would be a delicious addition mixed into these homemade drinks:
The staff at Foodal are not medical professionals and this article should not be construed as medical advice. Foodal and Ask the Experts, LLC assume no liability for the use or misuse of the material presented above. Always consult with a medical professional before changing your diet, or using supplements or manufactured or natural medications.
Recipe photos by Adrian White, © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Bragg product photos courtesy of Bragg Life Food Products. See our TOS for more details.
About Adrian White
Adrian White is a certified herbalist, organic farmer, and health/food writer and expert. She aims to bridge the world of natural, holistic health and nutrition to the realm of organic foods, herbalism, gardening, and sustainability - or "Food as Medicine" - throughout her writing.