Every summer I head east to spend some time with my goddaughter Piper and her sisters Alden and Reilly on the Massachusetts shore south of Cape Cod. In what has now become a yearly tradition, we dig for clams to make stuffies, pick rose hips for rose hip jelly, and gather sassafras roots for homemade root beer. Credit for the root beer goes to Hank Shaw who taught me all about how to make root beer from sassafras on one of his return trips from the east coast. Sassafras grows wild all over the eastern United States and Canada and was the traditional root for what we call root beer here.
Before I get into the details about how to identify the plant and how to make the root beer, a disclaimer is in order. The key ingredient in sassafras is safrole, which the FDA banned for commercial use in food in the early 60s because studies found that rats fed enormous amounts of the stuff developed cancer or liver damage. But here’s the rub. According to a government agency that extrapolates human exposure needed based on rodent carcinogens (see the links below the recipe), if you drank a sassafras root beer a day, you would still have much less carcinogenic risk than if you drank beer or wine. You would have to drink a LOT of this stuff over a long period of time for there to be a problem, and at those amounts, the sugar in that much root beer would probably be much more toxic for you than the safrole. So remember my mom’s advice, “all things in moderation”. Disclaimer over.
So, if you’ve decided to dance on the wild side and join us in this sassafras adventure, you’ll need to find some sassafras. (Apologies to the westerners among us, you won’t find sassafras growing out here, it only grows in the east.) Hank has a great explanation on his site as to what to look for. The sassafras plant grows to be a small bushy tree, that likes the shade under the canopy of larger trees. We found our sassafras plants right at the edge of the backyard where it met a wooded area. You can usually find three shapes of leaves on the plant, single oval-ish leaves, mitten-shaped leaves, and leaves with three-lobes. The plants do resemble young oak trees, but the key difference is in the leaves. You’ll find two or three different shapes of leaves growing on a sassafras. The plants tend to grow in clumps. Look for seedlings a few feet high. They’ll be the easiest to pull and their roots the easiest to cut. Once pulled, rinse off the dirt, wrap the roots in a paper towel and store in a plastic bag in the fridge until you are ready to make your root beer. If you have any doubts as to whether or not you have picked sassafras, just break a stem and smell it, or smell the roots. They smell just like root beer.
Alden next to a perfectly sized sassafras sapling, and my nephew Austin holding the root.
Traditionally root beer is fermented, hence the word “beer”. Our version is not fermented, but you could do that if you wanted to. Here’s a great blog post by Vaughnshire Farm on how to make fermented sassafras root beer. Our version is much more simple. Just boil the roots with some spices and molasses, strain, add sugar, and store as a syrup. Mix the syrup with soda water to make the root beer.
My friend and Simply Recipes contributor Steve-Anna grew up making sassafras root beer this way in Alabama. How about you? If you grew up making sassafras root beer, please tell us about it in the comments.
Hank likes to add a drop or two of mint extract to the sassafras syrup, which adds a nice note.
- Several roots (including some green stems) from sassafras saplings, about 30-40 inches worth of 1/4-inch thick roots (enough to fill one cup when you chop them into 1/2-inch pieces)
- 4 cups water
- 2 cloves
- 1/2 teaspoon anise seeds (can sub fennel)
- 4 allspice berries
- 1-inch of stick cinnamon
- 1/4 cup molasses
- 1 cup sugar
- 2 quarts soda water
1 Scrub the roots clean of any dirt. Cut the roots into 1/2-inch long pieces. (The roots can be tough, if you have a pair of pruning shears, they work great to cut the roots.) If you have a few green stems, you can include them too, but you should have mostly roots. Cut up as much as you need to fill one cup. Put the roots into a small pot and cover with 4 cups of water. Add the cloves, anise seeds, allspice berries, and cinnamon stick. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and simmer for 25 minutes. Add the molasses and simmer for 5 minutes more. Remove from heat.
2 Strain through cheesecloth or a fine mesh sieve lined with a paper towel. Rinse out the pot. Return the liquid to the pot. Add the sugar, heat until just a simmer and the sugar has dissolved. Remove from the heat and let cool.
3 To assemble the root beer, fill a glass with ice cubes, add the syrup and soda water in a 1:2 ratio, so 1/3 cup of syrup to 2/3 cups of soda water. Add more soda water if you want it more diluted, add more syrup if you want it stronger.