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Root Beer, and how many times can you say “Sassafras”

4 May

Probably my favorite thing to make with water kefir, so far, is root beer.  It’s a simple twist on the basic kefir recipe ( see my “Tibicos!” post): it’s just made with an herbal tea instead of just plain water.  This recipe is adapted from Jessica Prentice’s Full Moon Feast.  She uses birch syrup in her recipe.  I imagine birch syrup to have some kind of wintergreen-like taste to it, like when you scratch the bark of a black birch and smell the sap of it.  Unfortunately, birch syrup is impossible to come by on the East Coast as far as I’ve seen,  and it’s very expensive to order from Alaska.  I use maple instead.

The licorice taste tends to overpower the sassafras in the following recipe, so most recently I tried omitting the licorice and using  3 T sassafras.  The resulting sassafras beer is much less sweet, more tangy and bitter.  Also quite satisfying.  You might play with your own herbal ratio.  Also, check out latest root beer recipe, using sarsaparilla.

Simmer for 20 minutes:

4 c of water

2T dried sassafras root

1T dried licorice root.

Let this mixture cool to a “blood warm” temperature.  You should be able to touch the water comfortably– if it’s too hot you will kill your tibicos!  Strain out the herbs, put the tea you just made into a 2 quart jar, then add

1/3 c evaporated cane syrup (sucanot or rapadura) 

1/3 c maple syrup

4 cups water

1/2 c water kefir grains

Cover your jar with a towel to allow air to come in and flies to stay out.  Leave it out of the way for 2 days, stirring occasionally if you remember.  After two days, taste the brew to make sure it’s fermented enough to your liking.  If you want, leave it another day.  When it seems ready, bottle it.  Leave the sealed bottles out at room temperature for a day or so, then drink, or store in the fridge.  Don’t leave them at room temp too long or they will explode with fizz when you open them!

About Sassafras:

Sassafras is a common woodland deciduous shrub.  It grew all over in Rhode Island, where I grew up, and it’s very easy to distinguish by it’s leaves with three fingers.  I used to love to pick a leaf and smell it while on my daily hikes in the woods when I was a kid.  The sap of the leaves has a fresh, tangy smell that apparently acts as a natural insect repellent to protect the plant.

Today I looked it up in Medicinal And Other Uses of North American Plants by Charlotte Erichsen-Brown.  The book looks at herbalism as sited throughout history.  According to this source, sassafras also goes by the names:  saxafras, saloop, ague tree, cinnamon-wood, and smelling tree.  It was use by the Iroquois as a tonic– as a blood purifier, to heal venereal diseases, for rheumatism, after childbirth, and as a diuretic. It’s also considered a particularly good herb to use for purification in the spring.

Leaves of the sassafras. I pilfered this picture from sassafrasgrove.com

Despite all this wonderfulness, you won’t see sassafras in the ingredient list of any root beer you buy.  It was banned from root beers and teas in 1960.  Why?  One component in the oil of the sassafras plant is safrole.  There was a cancer study done, and when as much as .5 to 1 percent of their food was safrole, rats developed liver cancer.  (Never mind that safrole is also present in cinnamon, black pepper, and nutmeg).  Safrole is chemically related to myristicine and asaraone and is suspected of being hallucinogenic in large doses.  Wikipedia has an interesting write up on the stuff.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Safrole.  I imagine it might not be a great idea to drink sassafras essential oil or isolated safrole, but it’s interesting how a study on an isolated substance has come to demonize this one whole food that contains it.  It’s also interesting how a lab study curbed the popularity of sassafras, but we can still sell and eat Sweet and Low to our hearts’ content, so long as there is a label warning us that it could cause cancer.

In spite of the sassafras ban, it is still possible to buy the dried root at herbal stores.  I don’t know why that’s ok and putting it in a tea bag is not, but I won’t complain.  In Manhattan you can get it at Flower Power on East 9th street, Integral Yoga Natural Apothecary on West 13 st, and Dual Specialty store on 1st ave in the East Village.  I’m sure there are other places, too.

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