On a trip to the Skagit Valley Food Co-op, I discovered sarsaparilla root in their impressive bulk herbs/spices/tea section; it looked a lot like the bark mulch you might put around shrubs in the front yard, though paler and finer. The directions for use indicated that one teaspoon of root in a cup of boiling water produced a “tea” that was useful for purification and detoxification. Well. A quick sniff of the jar led me to believe the flavor might be similar to my favorite sarsaparilla soda, since it smelled like the combination of vanilla and root beer I associate with the soda, so I bought about 6-8 oz. to try. Sarsaparilla sodas come in so many forms: some are almost indistinguishable from root beer, others sweet and mild, others so root-heavy you can’t help but call it a tonic. My preferences definitely run toward the latter, and I was hoping the dried root would create a drink in that spectrum. I don’t make or drink the tea often, but I do very much like the flavor, which is milder than root beer, almost an herbaceous cream soda-like taste, minus the carbonation. It tastes root-y and old-fashioned, in a good way.
Last summer, during my busiest jamming season, I experimented a few times with tea infusions in fruit jam; my favorite was a golden plum jam made with Earl Grey tea. I use lavender frequently with peaches and apricots and a variety of fresh herbs with various berries, macerating the fruit overnight with sugar and a cheesecloth bundle of tea leaves or herbs. I like for the steeped aromatics to provide a hint of flavor but not overwhelm the fruit, so my tea- and herb-scented preserves tend to be restrained. (There is nothing worse than soapy lavender ruining a nice stone fruit jam.) I was sipping a mug of sarsaparilla tea one morning last month as I ordered the fruit for my CSA. It happened to be the first week peaches were available, and I had a lightbulb moment. Wouldn’t sarsaparilla root, with its creamy notes and lightly herbal flavor, be a lovely addition to peach jam? When I got my case of peaches earlier this month, I set aside a few pounds and gave it a try.
I am really happy with the results. Similar to a peach jam with vanilla, the sarsaparilla lends a peaches-and-cream quality, but without overwhelming sweetness. I was conservative with the root, so it doesn’t overpower the sweetness or flavor of the peach, but fans of sarsaparilla will be able to find that unique earthy flavor complementing the fruit. I used the ratios for fruit and sugar found in the peach jam from Saving the Season by Kevin West (a brilliant book!) but the sarsaparilla addition was all mine. I think this is a keeper recipe.
Peach Jam with Sarsaparilla
- 2 1/2 lbs of peaches, washed, peeled or not (I don’t), pitted and diced
- 1 3/4 c. sugar, preferably evaporated organic cane juice
- juice of 1/2 lemon (about 3 – 4 T.)
- pinch of salt
- 4 T. sarsaparilla root*
Day 1: Place the peaches and 1 c. sugar in a glass or ceramic bowl. Stir to combine. Tie the sarsaparilla root into a small bundle in cheesecloth, or use one or two of these handy refillable tea bags, and bury in the peaches. Cover and refrigerate at least overnight and up to 2 days.
Day 2: Start a water bath and sterilize your jars and lids. Into a jam pan, Dutch oven or equivalent, transfer the peach mixture, juice and any undissolved sugar; add the remaining sugar, lemon juice and salt. Stir to combine. Find the sarsaparilla bundle and secure it to the handle or side of your jam pan, leaving it submerged in the fruit mixture. Bring to a rolling boil over medium-high heat; cook, stirring occasionally to prevent scorching, until the jam boils down and thickens. With peaches, I prefer a looser set jam, so I stop cooking mine when the jam thickens enough to fall in sheets from the side of a spoon. If you’d like to add pectin to make a thicker, more set jam, there are some helpful tips on the Pomona’s pectin website, as well as in the insert found in each box of Pomona’s.
When you reach your desired set point, remove the pan from the heat. Carefully removed the sarsaparilla bundle and use tongs or two spoons to squeeze it as dry as you can manage, to get all the flavor out and into your jam. Ladle hot jam into hot, sterilized jars; wipe the rims of each jar carefully and affix the lids. Process the jars in a water bath for 10 mins.; remove to a clear, towel-lined counter and allow to sit untouched overnight. Check that each jar is sealed; refrigerate unsealed jars immediately. Properly sealed jars will keep in a cool, dark cupboard for up to a year.
*I mentioned that I purchased my sarsaparilla root at Skagit Valley Food Co-op. It was Frontier brand, which is available online in bulk. I do not know for sure whether the root I bought is Jamaican or Indian, which is often called “false” sarsaparilla. I have no experience with foraging sarsaparilla and can not speak to how that would work in a jam. I found a site called Starwest Botanicals with better pictures of sarsaparilla than the Frontier site provides: based on the pictures, I believe I am working with Indian (false) sarsaparilla. Because sarsaparilla has some medicinal properties, it might be a good idea to ask questions at a natural foods store or apothecary before using it extensively in its tea/tonic form.