Raspberry-Thyme Shrub (a.k.a. drinking vinegar)

Growing up in rural southeastern Ontario, our long driveway was lined with raspberry bushes. In the summers, my sister and I would be tasked with picking them so my mom could make jam. We'd be told not to eat them and, naturally, only about half would make it back home. To this day, raspberries are my absolute favourite of the berry world and, in general, their season ranks highly amongst my favourite parts of summer.

Sadly, the wild raspberry bushes on my parents' property slowly petered out over the years, and it's been a long time since I've had an abundance of them at my disposal without having to pay an arm and a leg (though totally worth it). A few years ago Brett and I moved from our downtown Vancouver apartment to a garden suite that is aptly named, because it came complete with an amazing yard and even more amazing landlords. They not only let us plant our own garden, but also share the existing bounty in theirs. Part of this pre-existing bounty is a pretty bumper crop of raspberries.  

To say this summer in Vancouver has been a-typical is an understatement. While we tend to have quite beautiful months in July and August, it can be pretty rainy and cool for much of the spring. On the contrary, this year was dry and HOT by early May. While this has been detrimental for some crops, not to mention led to a bad year for early forest fires, the berries are loving it.  Strawberries and raspberries, which can often have short-lived seasons in the damp west coast, have been absolutely thriving. To get to our front door we literally have to walk through the raspberry bushes in our yard, as they've partially blocked our back gate and I refuse to let Brett prune them. Needless to say, I've been determined not to let any berries go to waste. While I haven't made any jam – I still leave that to my mom, as mine never seems to be as good – I have made a few delicious batches of raspberry shrub. 

What is a shrub? In essence, it's a tart syrup made from fruit, vinegar, and sugar. They are also commonly referred to as drinking vinegars. Add a shrub to sparkling water for a refreshing, sophisticated homemade soda; keep it on hand for making simple, but impressive, cocktails (pass the gin, please); or use it as a base for salad dressing.

There are many different recipes and techniques for making a shrub, some far more involved than others. Some suggest allowing the fruit and sugar to macerate together for hours before adding vinegar. Others call for steeping the vinegar and berries together for days, then adding the sugar and boiling the mixture to obtain a true syrup. 

The vinegar-fruit-sugar ratio of shrub recipes can also vary considerably. I like to err on the side of less sugar. You can adjust the amount depending on the fruit you are using, and how much natural sweetness it lends. Though raspberries tend to be quite tart, at their peak this season the ones in our yard have been like candy, so I've kept the ratio pretty low here. 

Below is my version of a raspberry shrub that has very few steps and requires no boiling. It is super easy to make and yields a slightly fermented, fruit-forward nectar. I've added some thyme here too, as it's been thriving in our garden and the aromatics from the herbs pair nicely with the berries. 

Whether you find yourself with the fortunate problem of having a lot of fruit you simply can't eat quickly enough; or you're looking for a new way to enjoy your favourite fruits of the summer, a shrub is a great way to prepare almost any fruit at its season's peak. Get creative with other summer fruits and reward yourself with a refreshing cocktail (virgin or not) on a hot summer's day; or save it for a rainy one, close your eyes, and taste the sunshine.

Ingredients

  • 1 cups fresh raspberries, rinsed and well drained
  • 1/2 cup natural cane sugar*
  • 1 cup good quality apple cider vinegar
  • A small handful of fresh thyme (3-4 good size sprigs)
  • Cheese cloth for straining

*You can use any sugar here, but I prefer to use natural cane sugar as it's got a rich flavour, and a little goes a long way. I've also made this successfully with coconut sugar, and think I will be trying it with some quality local honey next. 

Method

Place the berries in a in a 500 ml mason jar, wedging the thyme in along with them. Top with sugar and drizzle the vinegar over top. Seal tightly and give it a good shake. Place in the back of the fridge and forget about it for 5–10 days. 

After 5–10 days have passed, line a sieve with a large square of cheesecloth that has been folded so it is three layers thick. Place the sieve over a large glass measuring cup or bowl and empty the contents of the raspberry mixture into the sieve. Press well with the back of a wooden spoon to extract as much liquid as possible. Once this is done I also like to give the cheesecloth a good squeeze to get as much of the raspberry pulp as possible. You can save the cheesecloth if you like, but it'll look rather murderous, so I prefer to just throw it in the compost. 

The final product should be slightly thick (see photos) and if you use unfiltered vinegar it should also have a slightly carbonated quality. This is because the sugars in the fruit, and – well – sugar, have reacted with the enzymes and friendly bacteria in the vinegar. 

If, at this point, you find the shrub is still too tart for your liking, simply add more sugar to taste. And if you desire more of a true syrup you can bring the mixture to a boil and simmer to desired consistency, which will allow the vinegar to evaporate off.

Pour the contents back into a clean mason jar, seal tightly, and store in the fridge for up to a month (though I doubt it'll last that long). Add to taste to soda water, cocktails, drizzle on vanilla or dark chocolate ice cream, or whisk with olive oil for a fruity vinaigrette.