September 16, 2020

Sara Bir

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Field Guide: Spicebush

Accessible, versatile, and all over our woods

My woods are lousy with spicebush. The shrub grows abundantly in deciduous forests across the U.S. and Canada. It’s a gift to foragers and cooks—accessible and versatile, with a shapeshifting flavor. Although I’ve used spicebush in teas, boozy infusions, baked goods, and tubs for years, I still can’t get a handle on when or where it shines best. Right now, I recommend that you find time to gather its bright red berries before they drop off, likely by early October.

The berries, which ripen on female plants between late summer and early fall, are your entry point. They’re easy to spot. They’re firm, glossy, elongated, and no bigger than the tip of your pinkie. Smash one and a piney, citrusy, resinous quality will announce itself. Once you are certain it is what you think it is, try popping one in your mouth. These bracing, bold berries are not juicy berries that you gobble by handfuls, but thoughtful nibbles. Don’t be too greedy when harvesting. Birds and mammals like the berries a lot, too. I try not to strip more than a quarter of them from any given bush.

The unripe green berries have some of the same flavor and aroma, though it is not as developed. The leaves have more of a lemongrass thing going on, and if you split apart one of the plant’s pliable green twigs, you’ll get more of that.

Field Guide: Spicebush - Quote

The elements of spicebush are familiar, but the sum is its own thing. Although early white settlers used spicebush berries in place of warming spices like cinnamon, cloves, or nutmeg, it isn’t really like those at all.

The elements of spicebush are familiar, but the sum is its own thing. Although early white settlers used spicebush berries in place of warming spices like cinnamon, cloves, or nutmeg, it isn’t really like those at all. When dried, it can even provoke a mouth-numbing sensation reminiscent of Szechuan peppercorn. (In fact, I use it as a stand-in for Szechuan peppercorn in my version of Chinese five-spice.)

The berries can be used fresh, smashed or minced, though they pack the most punch when dried—no dehydrator necessary. Just leave them out on a tray to shrivel up and brown. It’ll take four days, tops, and they’ll brown more quickly and evenly if you shake the pan every day or so. Spicebush berries have a high oil content, so they form a paste of sorts if buzzed too enthusiastically in a spice grinder. I prefer a mortar and pestle. You might even bash them with the flat of your knife and then chop them up.

I strip the leaves from the twigs, lay the leaves out on a tray, and allow them to dry at ambient temperature. The twigs I don’t dry, as they give you the clearest flavor when used fresh, preferably in the spring, when the plant is newly invigorated. You can use the dried leaves to make a soothing tea, but they are fairly bland alone. They taste best when mixed with dried mint. The twigs are more promising. I stick a few in nearly every batch of bitters I make, where they impart a subtle citronella note.

When seasoning, there’s a fine line between “Not enough spicebush” and “Whoa, too much spicebush!” I’m still learning it. I have found you need to be more generous with dried spicebush than with other spices, but you should draw your own conclusions. The experimenting is part of the fun. Start playing around and see. Here are a few ideas to get you going. (Prefer not to forage, or can’t? Buy spicebush berries here.)
  • Add dried berries to fermenting kraut or braising red cabbage.
  • Make a marinade for shrimp from ground cumin and dried spicebush berries, plus garlic and soy sauce. Skewer the shrimp on spicebush twigs that have been stripped of their leaves, then grill.
  • Make annatto oil, adding a ton of flavor by using an equal ratio of spicebush berries to annatto (achiote) seeds. That makes a striking, sharp-tasting finishing oil that’s nice drizzled over fatty red meat. This is very restaurant-y.
  • Add spicebush berries or twigs to steeping batches of vermouth, or whatever the hell else you can dream up. A number of heartland distilleries use spicebush berries in their gin formulas.
  • Make the rub below and pat it onto a piece of red meat.

Spicebush-Sumac Rub

Makes enough for 2-3 pounds of meat

Spicebush is assertive, piney, and citrusy—all qualities that make it great on red meat. This rub holds up to grilling like a champion, and helps create an appealing crusty char. The rosemary echoes the pine flavor, the tart sumac adds an edge, and musky white pepper provides a counterpoint to the sharpness of spicebush. Black pepper, which is fruitier, is fine, too.

I like this on any good grilling cut of beef, and especially leg of lamb or lamb loin chops. One day I’ll get my hands on good venison and bust this out. I’ve read that early European settlers used spicebush on wild game. If you don’t eat meat but you love spicebush, try this on summer squash or eggplant, mixing in a teensy bit of olive oil to help it adhere.

1 tbsp. freshly ground dried spicebush berries
1 tsp. freshly ground white pepper
1 tbsp. ground wild staghorn sumac (see note)
1 ½ tsp. kosher salt
1 tbsp. finely chopped fresh rosemary

In a small bowl, mix together all of the ingredients with your fingers. It may resemble a crumbly paste, or it could be more powdery. That’ll depend on the spicebush.

Pat the meat dry with paper towels, then pat the rub generously over all its surfaces. If you have time, refrigerate the meat with its coating, uncovered, for up to 24 hours. That will help you get a nice crust while grilling.

Any leftover rub will keep, refrigerated, for a few days.

Note: If you don’t have staghorn sumac, you may substitute 1 ½ tsp. foraged smooth sumac or ground sumac from the grocery store. They are denser and more tart than staghorn sumac. Or you can just omit the sumac altogether.

This recipe is from Sara Bir’s “The Fruit Forager’s Companion: Ferments, Desserts, Main Dishes, and More from Your Neighborhood and Beyond” (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2018) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.


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