A Tart Splash Of Vinegar Isn039t Just for Salad

The newest magic elixir is among the world’s oldest. I’m talking vinegar here, touted online and in actual, physical books as a miracle cure for everything from athlete’s foot and bee stings to heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

What we tend to think of as an inexpensive kitchen staple has been swathed in lore and legend for millennia. In 400 B.C., Hippocrates advised using vinegar concoctions to treat fractures, “injuries of the head,” and more. Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23–79) wrote in The Natural History that Cleopatra dissolved a pearl in vinegar and offered it up to Mark Antony as an aphrodisiac.

Vinegar-based drinks can be found in cultures from China to Britain, according to the lively, learned Ultimate History Project. Two that have had a resurgence are shrubs and switchel—both time-honored thirst-slaking tonics with roots in the Old World.

“But it was in America, where summers can be sweltering, that the switchel or haymaker’s drink truly came into its own,” notes The Ultimate History Project. “Throughout the eighteenth century and on through the nineteenth century, switchels or shrubs, their fruit- or vegetable-based cousins, could be found in places ranging from the rolling countryside of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello to the blistering sun-swept prairies of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s De Smet homestead.”

I wonder what our third president or Laura and her Almanzo would make of switchel’s current hipster manifestation. Frankly, all the au courant artisanal marketing (reclaimed furniture and hanging Edison bulbs optional) makes me crave something mass-produced and bad for me, like a Coke.

I feel more kindly toward shrubs, mainly because they’re an excellent reason to bust loose at the local berry stand. Michael Dietsch, author of 2014’s Shrubs: An Old-Fashioned Drink for Modern Times, is a proponent of the cold-process method of shrub making; instead of cooking a fruity simple syrup on the stovetop, he macerates fresh fruit in sugar. Over the course of a few hours (or days), the sugar slowly draws the juices out of the fruit and yields a syrup, which is then strained and mixed with red wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar.

The cold process may take more than making a cooked-fruit syrup, but as Dietsch wrote in a piece for Serious Eats, the flavor is “purer and brighter.” That’s just the starting point, because shrubs change and mellow as they age, according to Dietsch. “And I mean, they mellow a lot. The tartness and sweetness both remain, but they start to harmonize after just a few weeks in the fridge. So what you have is a lightly sweet and tart syrup with a rich fruit flavor,” he wrote. “Pair a small amount of shrub (about half an ounce) with 2 ounces of vermouth or sherry. Top that with some seltzer or club soda, and you have a light and lovely treat. And it's so low in alcohol, you have two! Or three. I won’t tell.” Neither will I.

Just in case you were wondering, the word vinegar comes from the French term vin aigre, or “sour wine.” In a fascinating 2006 study on the medicinal uses and antiglycemic effect of vinegar, Carol S. Johnston, associate director of the nutrition program at Arizona State University, explained that it can be made from a great variety of fermentable carbohydrates, including wine, molasses, dates, sorghum, apples, pears, grapes, berries, melons, coconut, honey, beer, maple syrup, potatoes, beets, malt, grains, and whey. “Initially yeasts ferment the natural food sugars to alcohol. Next, acetic bacteria (Acetobacter) convert the alcohol to acetic acid. Commercial vinegar is produced by either fast or slow fermentation processes.”

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