If you have an abundance of rhubarb springing up from your garden, make this rhubarb shrub. This sweet-and-sour drink is easy to make, and perfect for springtime.
What is a shrub?
A shrub is a sweet-and-sour drinking vinegar, similar to switchel or haymaker's punch. To make a shrub, you pour vinegar over fruit and let it stand for a few days. Then, you strain the fruit-infused vinegar and mix it with sugar or another sweetener.
In addition to fruit and vinegar, many shrub makers also add herbs, spices, and, occasionally, vegetables. Sugar remains the sweetener of choice; however, you can sweeten shrubs using other natural sweeteners such as honey, maple syrup, or molasses. This version of rhubarb shrub uses rhubarb, white wine vinegar, and sugar.
What's the history?
Sweetened vinegar-based drinks made with fruit, herbs, and spices have been prized for both their medicinal and culinary value since antiquity. Early Persian texts describe the benefits of sekanjabinat which comes from the words serkeh (vinegar) and anjabin (honey) made using herbs, spices, and fruit.
Later, these honey-sweetened vinegar drinks were adopted in Greece and spread throughout Europe where they were known as oxymels. Oxy refers to vinegar and mel to honey. Eventually, these medicinal cordials became what we know as shrubs today.
Shrubs and other drinking vinegars were popular in the 17th and 18th centuries before their popularity waned in the early 20th century with the advent of soda counters. Making shrubs offered an easy way to preserve summer fruit well into the cold winter months.
Additionally, vinegar-based drinks were thought to convey medicinal benefits as well such as supporting digestion, easing stomach upset, or soothing the common cold, depending on which fruits and herbs you add to the mix.
What's in it?
This rhubarb shrub is simple and easy to make. You'll need rhubarb, vinegar, and a sweetener. To this basic mix, you can also add fresh herbs such as mint or spices such as vanilla and cardamom.
- Rhubarb is a member of the buckwheat family, and it is rich in anthocyanins which give it a vivid red color. It's also rich in antioxidants and has anti-inflammatory properties. It has a tart flavor that works well with summer fruit.
- White wine vinegar works well with rhubarb since its pale color allows the red pigment in rhubarb to come through.
- Sugar gives the shrub its sweetness. Organic white sugar works well in rhubarb shrub because it helps to maintain a light color.
Tips for Making Rhubarb Shrub
As with many old-world recipes, shrubs are easy to make. You'll start by soaking the rhubarb in vinegar, then strain the infused vinegar before mixing it with sugar. Next, heat the sugar and vinegar together in a saucepan until it forms a fine syrup. Bottle and store.
- Choose brightly colored, red rhubarb. Part of the drink's charm is its color. And if your rhubarb is pale or green, your shrub will lack the vivid, vibrant pink color that makes it so visually pleasing.
- Chop the rhubarb into ¼-inch dice. Rhubarb cut into small pieces will produce a more colorful and flavorful vinegar.
- Use equal parts vinegar and sugar. While you can use less sugar if you like, true shrubs are made with equal parts vinegar and sugar to form a syrup. This balance of sweet and sour is what makes them so delicious.
- Add your sugar at the end. Some modern recipes call for adding sugar to the vinegar-rhubarb mixture; however, traditional recipes call for adding the sugar just before bottling and warming it with the vinegar until dissolved. The traditional method results in better quality shrub syrup.
- Use only a little bit. Remember the shrub is designed to be diluted. So use about 1 tablespoon to 2 tablespoons of shrub syrup diluted into mineral water or spirits.
Rhubarb Shrub Recipe
- 1 ½ cups chopped rhubarb
- 1 cup white wine vinegar
- 1 cup sugar
- Place the rhubarb into a quart-sized mason jar. Cover with vinegar, and then seal tightly. Let it sit, away from direct light and heat, for 5 days. Shake the jar daily.
- Strain the rhubarb vinegar through a fine-mesh sieve into a small saucepan. Stir in the sugar, and set the saucepan on the stove over medium-high heat. Warm the vinegar and sugar together until the sugar completely dissolves, forming a fine syrup. Transfer the shrub syrup to a bottle.
- To serve, mix one tablespoon of the syrup into 8 to 12 ounces of sparkling water, tap water, or mix into a cocktail.
Variations and Substitutions
Try apple cider vinegar instead of white wine vinegar. While white wine vinegar works particularly well with rhubarb, apple cider vinegar is decidedly more affordable and makes a fine choice, too.
Swap honey for sugar to make a rhubarb oxymel instead.
Add strawberries to the rhubarb and make a strawberry-rhubarb shrub.
Add vanilla bean and green cardamom to the vinegar at the same time you add the rhubarb. The spices will give the shrub a fragrant, floral quality that works well with rhubarb.
Shrubs are high in acid and sugar which helps preserve them. Traditionally, shrubs would be stored at room temperature for 6 months or longer in a cupboard away from direct light and heat. However, most people store their shrubs in the fridge.
Shrubs are made with equal parts sugar and vinegar. If you're avoiding sugar, you can simply make a rhubarb-infused vinegar instead, but it won't be sweet.
Spoon a tablespoon or two of the rhubarb shrub into a glass, and fill it with mineral water. You can also serve it with alcohol such as rum or vodka.