Thursday, May 1, 2008

Sassafras Tea: Spring Tonic

Larry's been busy this week seeking out sassafras and digging the roots. He's a firm believer in the value of spring tonics--ramps, wild greens and sassfras tea are his choices.

Sassafras trees are easy to spot because their leaves are so distinct. Usually there are three shapes of leaves on a sassafras tree: one has one "thumb," one has two thumbs and the third has no thumbs at all.

Warning! The US Food and Drug Administration banned use of Sassafras in 1960:
(b) Food containing any added safrole, oil of sassafras, isosafrole, or
dihydrosafrole, as such, or food containing any safrole, oil of sassafras,
isosafrole, or dihydrosafrole, e.g., sassafras bark, which is intended solely or primarily as a vehicle for imparting such substances to another food, e.g., sassafras tea, is deemed to be adulterated in violation of the act based upon an order published in the FEDERAL REGISTER of December 3, 1960 (25 FR 12412). From:

So use sassafras at your own risk. I have read that extremely large amounts of the tea would have to be consumed to be a risk factor, but I have not found good documentation of that claim online.

Here is how we make our tea (living dangerously out here in the West Virginia wilds!):

Dig some young roots (they have the most oil); wash them thoroughly. Some people prefer to peel the bark and use only that to brew their tea. We use the whole root.

Boil some water and drop in the roots. Allow to simmer until the tea is the color and flavor desired. How much water and how many roots? I don't know any set amounts of either, but for a 2 quart saucepan of water, I allow about 3-4 pieces of root about 6-8" long. This isn't exact science--the strength of the tea will depend on how many roots, how much water, and the amount of oil in the roots.

When the tea is brewed to my liking, I strain it through a cloth to remove bits of bark, root, etc that may have loosened during brewing. The tea is ready to sweeten (or not) to taste with honey, sugar, or even Splenda if necessary.

My grandchildren and my husband like sassafras tea best when it's cold. I refrigerate after sweetening. Cold sassafras tea tastes a lot like root beer without the carbonation.

I sometimes make sassafras jelly. Here's my trial-and-error recipe (I was once invited to make this on TV, but I had a storytelling gig scheduled the same time as the show. Darn!)

Sassafras Jelly
1. Scrub roots well and boil in a pot of water until the resulting tea is strong and dark.

3. Let the tea cool a little, then strain through cheesecloth or a similar cloth to remove bits and pieces of bark. Measure out 3 cups of the tea and pour into a 6-8 quart saucepan. Add 1 tablespoon of lemon juice (optional).

4. Add one box of powdered fruit pectin (necessary for the jelly to set, as sassafras does not contain pectin, the jelling substance needed for successful jams and jellies). Stir the pectin into the tea and bring to a full rolling boil.

5. Add 4 cups of sugar all at once and stir well. Continue stirring until the jelly reaches a full rolling boil once again. Boil 1 full minute, stirring constantly. Remove from heat, and stir and skim for five minutes, removing any foam from the top of the jelly.

6. Ladle into sterilized jars and seal. Current recommendations are to process all jellies for 5 minutes in a boiling water bath canner.

For lots of folklore about sassafras, try these websites:

Crazy for Tea

Glenbrook Farms

American Forests article in Highbeam Encyclopedia

USDA powerpoint slides with great photos of the tree and its leaves

Ozark folklore about sassafras


Tipper said...

What does the jelly compare to? I mean does it have a rootbeer flavor too? My mother-n-law said her grandparents always had a spring tonic of tea.

Granny Sue said...

Yes, the flavor is similar to root beer, which I know sounds odd for jelly, but it is delicious. I wish I could think of something else to compare it to, but there's no flavor quite like it.

Bayou Woman said...

Well, if it was banned then we are so in trouble down the bayou. We use this dried and ground and we call is file`, which we use in gumbo!
And thanks for taking the time to critique the swamp photos and cast for your vote!

Granny Sue said...

Your file is ok, bayouwoman--it's the oil in the roots that the government seems to think is a problem. But you know, we were advised not to eat eggs too, and now they say oopsie, eggs are actually good for you. I didn't pay attention to those warnings either.

Quinn said...

Now I have a strong craving for sassafras tea. I love the flavor. Never thought of it as a spring tonic, but I could certainly use some livening up, so the timing is perfect! Thanks :)
I'd love to try that jelly, too...making a note!

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