Following Independence Day, what better wild ingredient to feature than sassafras? The aromatic bark, leaves, and roots were believed to be the first plant exported from North America to Europe, back in the late 1500s. All parts of this little tree made for delicious—and different—teas, sweets, and other confections, and sassafras commanded exorbitant prices in Europe ... until everyone started drinking sassafras tea to cure their syphilis. Soon no one wanted to be seen sipping their syphilis cure in public, and the sassafras trade withered.
More recently, sassafras has been getting a bad rap from the folks at the USDA, who say that the active component of sassafras, safrole, is a "known carcinogen." Why? They gave tons of pure safrole to rats, and the rats got cancer. Later researchers noted that, like the whole saccharine scare in the late 1970s, safrole seems to cause cancer in rats—but not people.
Still, many people still think that sipping sassafras tea or eating sassafras ice cream will doom you to a date with your oncologist. Just know that there are many times more "known carcinogens" in a bottle of beer than there are in any homemade sassafras product you might make. By one calculation, you'd need to drink 24 gallons of sassafras root beer a day for an extended time to get the amount of safrole fed to those rats. And if you drank that much soda, you'd have lots of other problems to deal with.
Holly A. Heyser
Armed with that knowledge, I was determined to collect some sassafras on our recent trip to New England. As we were walking around Cape Ann, I soon spotted the telltale mitten leaves of the tree. Sassafras is unmistakable: it is a spindly, shrubby tree that lives beneath larger trees. Its upper bark is green, and the leaves come in three varieties, often on the same branch—a mitten, a three-lobed leaf, and a simple spear-shaped leaf.
The way you collect sassafras is to pull seedlings right out of the ground. I know, it sounds destructive, but it isn't. Sassafras grows in clumps, and the parent tree sends out suckers under the ground, which then become seedlings; it's a lot like mulberry. You find a clump—look for at least eight to 10 treelings scattered about—go to one about two to three feet tall, grasp the very base of the tree, and yank it straight up. You should come away with the seedling and about 10 inches of the root.
You did not get all of the root, you know, and this is a good thing. It will regrow later. So what seems a little wanton is actually good for the sassafras cluster—it lets the surrounding seedlings grow with less competition.
All parts of this tree are useful. Notice I did not say "edible," because the leaves are the only part you actually eat. You know them as file powder, and without sassafras leaves your gumbo would not be gumbo.
I left the leaves of the seedlings I pulled with my sister and brother-in-law. They can make either tea or file powder from them. I took the twigs and roots back to California.
What's the difference? They make very different teas. The twigs have a lemony-floral flavor and aroma that one author has compared to Froot Loops cereal—not exactly a selling point in my book, but they are lovely. The roots, however, are the "root" in root beer.
I am not a tea drinker. Coffee is my breakfast drink of choice. So I was not about to switch for sassafras. But I do like using flavored syrups from wild ingredients; I recently made a delicious fir tip syrup from the young tips of a Douglas fir tree. I then use these syrups to glaze meats and make homemade sodas, sorbets, or ice creams. Sassafras is a prime candidate for this treatment.
So the first thing I did was chop some twigs, peeling back the green bark a bit to expose it—the bark is what has most of the flavor—then simmered them in hot water. The brew quickly turned a pretty amber, a little like cola if you mixed it with an equal volume of water. I let it steep overnight and then strained it through cheesecloth and mixed it 50-50 with sugar to make a simple syrup. It was outstanding. I mean, really outstanding. Think root beer with a lot of lemon in it.
Here's how to make sassafras twig syrup.
That was easy enough. But what I really wanted to make was homemade root beer. Root beer is my soda of choice, although I am also a big fan of good ginger ale. And I know how to make root beer at home, and it traditionally involves yeast and a small amount of alcohol—that's the "beer" in root beer. I did not want to do this. Homemade ginger ale and root beers made with fermentation are tricky. I wanted a stable, non-alcoholic base flavoring I could then make into a soda by adding seltzer water.
The first thing I knew I needed to do was to chop the sassafras roots.
But root beer is not just sassafras—it is a concoction of many things. So I began poring through my old cookbooks, and on the interwebz for recipes. So many variations! After reading and reading, I decided to just go with things that a) were in lots of the recipes, b) I knew I liked, and c) we had available.
I went heavy on the sassafras roots, plus some burdock root (it's actually in a lot of the recipes!), molasses for color, one clove, a piece of star anise, some coriander seed, and one drop of peppermint extract. I'd wanted to use wintergreen but could not find it, and, although I thought about using some of my toothpaste, I thought better of it ...
I boiled the tea, strained it, then added the sugar to make it into a syrup. With some trepidation I sipped a spoonful. Holy crap! It actually tasted like, like ... root beer! Maybe not the root beer you get in a can now, but then that no longer has any real sassafras in it. This was warm and zingy, and, well, deliciously rooty!
If you live near sassafras trees—and you do if you live east of the Great Plains, south of Quebec and north of Orlando—by all means make this syrup. If you don't live there, or don't feel like foraging, you can buy sassafras root bark online. You'll never go back to store-bought root beer again.
Here's my full root beer recipe.