Monday, July 27, 2009

Hard core soft drinks

So there's slow food, and then there's sloooooow food. The thing about slow food is, it takes time. Usually we're just talking clock time, as with a meatloaf. Right now I'm baking a "Yes, We're Out of Onions" meatloaf. I can tell you how it is in about an hour. Sometimes slow food stretches out into calendar time. The ambitious menus planned for holiday and party spreads require scheduling at least some of the food prep and cooking for days before the event.

Lately I'm getting into brewing soft drinks, which stretches into the weeks in prep time. Last week I invited a few select friends for a root beer float party. Rain kept some away, so we were an especially small and cozy group, sipping the frothy heads off homemade root beer poured over scoops of homemade vanilla bean ice cream.

Root beer takes a week, ice cream about an hour and a half. The root beer recipe is from my co-op's newsletter. Coincidentally, I am on the cover of this issue.

Root Beer

Source: River Valley Market newsletter, July 2009

Makes 4 liters. Note: Fermented with yeast—may have slight alcohol content.


1/4 oz dried sassafras root bark
1/4 oz dried birch bark
1/4 oz dried sarsaparilla root
1/8 oz dried licorice root
1" piece unpeeled thinly sliced fresh ginger
1 split vanilla bean
4 qts filtered water
2 cups molasses
1/8 tsp active dry yeast


  1. Place the herbs in a medium pot with 2 qts filtered water; bring to boil. Remove from heat, cover, and let steep for 2 hrs.
  2. Strain root-infused liquid through cheesecloth-lined sieve into a very clean plastic container. Discard solids.
  3. Add 2 qts filtered water, stir well, and let cool to 75 degrees.
  4. Wash four 1-liter plastic soda bottles with hot, soapy water. Rinse well and air-dry. (I bought new half-liter brown plastic bottles from the friendly neighborhood brewing supply company to use for my soft drink projects.)
  5. Stir molasses and yeast into root-infused liquid; cover and set aside to let ferment for 15 minutes.
  6. Using a funnel, pour into bottles, filling to within 2" of top but no higher. Screw lids on tightly; ferment at room temperature for 12 hrs. Chill 2-5 days. After 2 days, root beer will taste strongly of molasses; 5 days will yield a milder beverage.
  7. When ready to drink, open bottles very slowly, easing caps open little by little, to let any excess gas escape gradually.
  8. Serve over ice or with vanilla ice cream.

The foam from the root beer is sometimes of the delayed sort. The first bottle I opened and drank, I'd been sipping for at least a minute when it suddenly began gushing. I recommend you pour the beer into a glass for drinking. For root beer floats, put two or three scoops of vanilla bean ice cream into a glass, then slowly pour root beer over it. The combination of this particular root beer with vanilla ice cream is creamy and delicious.

The beer is mildly alcoholic, is slightly thicker than a commercial root beer, with a stronger molasses flavor. There is less of the spearmint flavor I usually associate with root beer. It tastes a little like a porter. I think the next time I make this, I will try using more of the first three ingredients, which smell to varying degrees like spearmint. That said, I'm pretty fond of this batch and have been drinking the rest of it steadily. I am saving one to trade with a friend later this week. She's made hard lemonade.

Vanilla Bean Ice Cream


2 cups milk
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1 pint heavy cream
1 vanilla bean

Makes about 5 cups.


  1. Beat the egg in a large bowl until it begins to froth.
  2. Scrape the seeds from the inside of the vanilla bean, and add them with the sugar to the egg. Beat until the sugar dissolves.
  3. Add the milk and cream and beat until well mixed.
  4. Freeze ice cream in an ice cream maker, according to your product's manual.

My next brewing project is under way: ginger beer. I'm following the recipe in Sally Fallon's Nourishing Traditions, which calls for creating a ginger "bug," then brewing and fermenting for three weeks. I still have two weeks to go before I can say how it turns out.
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