Every summer I head east to spend some time with my goddaughter and her sisters on the Massachusetts shore south of Cape Cod. In what has now become a yearly tradition, we gather sassafras roots for homemade root beer.
Homemade root beer is easy to make! The predominate flavor comes from the roots of sassafras, which one boils with spices and molasses to make a sweet syrup. Sassafras grows wild all over the eastern United States and Canada and traditionally was the main root used for what we call root beer here.
Root beer can be fermented, but my favorite method is what follows—kid-friendly, non-fermented, and non-alcoholic.
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.
If you've decided to 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.)
The sassafras plant grows to be a small bushy tree, one 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.
Sassafras plants resemble young oak trees, but the key difference is in the leaves. You'll find two or three shapes of leaves growing on one sassafras plant—single oval-ish leaves, mitten-shaped leaves, and leaves with three-lobes.
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.
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.
Pulling up the Roots
Pull up a seedling at the base of the plant. (Note that if a young sassafras seedling is too difficult to pull up, it's probably too big, look for a smaller one.)
Once pulled, rinse the dirt off the plant and roots, 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.
Safrole and Sassafras
Before I get into the details about 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.
Fermented or Not Fermented
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.
How about you? If you like making sassafras root beer, please tell us about it in the comments.
Homemade Sassafras Root Beer
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
Prepare the roots:
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.
Simmer roots with spices:
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.
Strain and add sugar:
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.
Add soda water to syrup to serve:
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.
DIY Root Beer, a fermented version from Serious Eats
Sassafras and homemade root beer from Hank Shaw of Hunter Angler Gardener Cook
Homemade Root Beer, Soda & Pop - book by Stephen Cresswell
Safrole is the principle component of oil of sassafras (up to 90%). It was formerly used as the main flavor ingredient in root beer. It is also present in the oils of basil, nutmeg, and mace (Nijssen et al., 1996). The HERP value for average consumption of naturally-occurring safrole in spices is 0.03%. Safrole and safrole-containing sassafras oils were banned from use as food additives in the U.S. and Canada (Canada Gazette, 1995; U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 1960). Before the 1964 ban in the U.S., a person consuming a glass of sassafras root beer per day for life, would have had a HERP value of 0.2% (Ames et al., 1987). Sassafras root can still be purchased in health food stores and can therefore be used to make tea; the recipe is on the World Wide Web.
This basically says that if you drank one glass of sassafras root beer a day, it would still have less carcinogenic risk than wine (0.6%) or beer (1.8%) given the HERP (Human Exposure Rodent Potency Index) value.