Real Roots Root Beer!

I’m making a blog post about this because the Facebook post went viral. I’m guessing you guys are interested in making root beer!

I had a lot of sassafras saplings coming up into my raspberry patch, so I went in there with my shovel and dug a bunch of them out. Sassafras roots always break off when I do this, but I got enough chunks of them to come up that I wanted to save what I could, as I knew I would find a use for them somehow.

I remembered once I smelled the roots as I chopped them up with my shears: sassafras is the flavor of root beer!

Now, people always throw at me that sassafras roots are dangerous due to their safrole content, which can give mice and rats cancer if you feed a lot of it to them. I was even told someone’s grandma died after drinking sassafras root tea daily for years. My take: don’t ingest sassafras every day and you’ll be fine! Safrole causes liver damage in large quantities, but honestly one of the ingredients in this recipe is dandelion root… which supports liver function.

This recipe is for making a root beer syrup that will be mixed in small quantities with seltzer water. NO amount of soda, naturally-made o not, is good for you to consume on a daily basis! Soda should be an occasional treat, not a nightly habit. The amount of syrup I made with this recipe is enough to last a long time, and because it contains quite a bit of sugar, it will last in the refrigerator up to a year.

Roots, slightly peeled stems, herbs and spices in the pot with water to boil

I’m not going to lie: I pretty much used THIS RECIPE for root beer syrup; I just tweaked the amounts of roots and spices used. I tend to just throw everything into a pot and hope for the best, for the most part… I’m sure I had a larger amount of root and bark material than this recipe called for, so my syrup probably has a slightly higher safrole content than it’s meant to. However, I’m not drinking this stuff every day so I am really not worried about it!

You simmer the sassafras roots and stems, dandelion roots, star anise, clove, and coriander seeds for awhile until it looks well incorporated (like 25-30 minutes.) Then strain the solids out and put the liquid back into the pot. Add your sugar and molasses and simmer a bit longer (10 minutes or so), stirring to incorporate the sugars. Then you just let the syrup cool and ladle it into two quart-sized jars. The magic ingredient at the end: one drop in each jar of wintergreen extract. Thankfully, I made some last year and it’s not only delicious but is also a source of anti-inflammatory compounds.

This spiced syrup will keep a year in the fridge if covered well. If it lasts that long…

I also made a small batch of syrup using JUST the peeled stems (also water and sugar, duh) so I came out with a lighter syrup to try. For my taste, I found about 1/8th cup of syrup in the bottom of a 12 ounce glass is perfect for flavoring plain seltzer water. It’s absolutely delicious and worth every step of effort to make!

Have you ever tried making your own root beer? Will you now? Please keep an eye on my Class Schedule! I’ll be teaching a lot more classes this upcoming year, so also consider joining my Email List to keep updated!

Black Walnuts!

If you live anywhere in the Eastern or Central United States, you have probably seen a black walnut tree. Black walnuts (juglans nigra) grow from New England through Wyoming and are wildly prolific. Just try digging up a sapling somewhere… they root in like a badass and if you don’t want that tree to grow in that spot, you’ll be facing a years-long battle to get it to go away.

Black walnut

I have four black walnut trees in my yard, thankfully all positioned around the chicken and duck coops out back. They provide much-needed shade and shelter for the birds, and it doesn’t matter that nothing else will grow underneath them back there because the birds just tear it all up anyway. That’s right– if you want to purposefully plant and grow a black walnut, plan on being lucky if grass grows underneath the fully mature trees, let alone anything else. The roots of the tree emit a substance called juglone, which stunts the growth of other plants in the area. Basically, black walnut trees are selfish bastards.

Black walnut leaves and the hulls of the nuts are one of the best known vermifuges available in wildcrafting. That means if you get worms, you can help expel the parasites in your body with the tincture or infused vinegar made from those ingredients (a tea made from the leaves can help too.) The catch is that the active components are only active while the husk of the nut is still green. So buying this compound dried is pretty useless.

Black walnut trees tend to create a mast crop of nuts every 2-3 years, so some years, even if you have a big tree, you won’t really see any nuts. That’s totally fine by me, since the damned squirrels eat more than half my nuts even in a good year. I still need to catch and eat one of those furry little turds one of these days…

In early spring, I tried tapping my trees for syrup for the first time ever. Unless you happen to have a whole grove of these trees at your disposal, I would not recommend you bother tapping them. Out of four trees only one produced any usable amount of sap, and once it was boiled down it was thin and runny and equaled maybe 1/4 cup out of what had been a gallon of liquid. In my experience it was not worth it, and tapping the tree can result in a reduced nut harvest so I’m not going to bother doing that again.

This year happened to be a mast year for my trees, and I set to collecting bucket loads of them starting in early October. Earlier in the season, when the nuts were still small, I crafted a batch of nocino, a liqueur that now smells absolutely heavenly and I need to start tasting. I also made a big batch of natural poultry de-wormer using the green walnut hulls that I had cut off the nuts along with wormwood, mugwort, raw garlic, and raw apple cider vinegar. This is still macerating on the counter, and will be added to the birds’ water by the tablespoonful several times over the course of the winter, when intestinal parasites like to strike.

Anyway, my pro tip for you if you are going to harvest black walnuts is to a.) wear gloves because the walnuts stain your hands dark brown and b.) start cutting the hulls off when still green, because the black ones are super gross and slimy and often full of bugs. You just need a small sharp paring knife and a few buckets.

Cutting black walnut hulls off. Yes, I wear flip flops until it’s basically snowing

Here’s the process using 5 gallon sized buckets:

One bucket full of walnuts you picked up off the ground (don’t pluck them off the tree)

One empty bucket for hulls/junk

One bucket filled at least halfway with water

A lawn chair and hours of time on your hands listening to a podcast or something

Sit in your chair and put gloves on. Pick up a walnut from the full bucket. Hold that in one hand and use opposite hand to cut a cross X around the nut. Use fingers to pry the sections off and toss into empty bucket (keep some to use for tincture or de-wormer but you will have PLENTY.) Then toss the inner nut into the bucket of water. If it floats, it’s a bad nut and you can just toss it in the junk bucket. If it sinks, leave it for now because you’ll collect the good ones later. The nuts that sink are good to eat… black gold nuggets, if you will.

I am totally destroying this old window screen and need a new one now

Once your bucket of nuts is empty, dump the nut hulls in the woods or somewhere that you don’t want anything else to grow. It’s almost as effective as salting the earth. Your water bucket (which is now full of scary black water) you can dump slowly over the top of an old window screen (or build a screen with find hardware cloth) and spread the nuts out, preferably in the sun or someplace warm and dry. If you bring them indoors, make sure they stay dry and don’t get moldy. That means if you put them in your basement (like I did) you need to keep the dehumidifier running or start your wood stove so the nuts can cure properly.

After about 3 weeks, you can crack a nut open to see if it’s ready to eat yet. If you don’t have time and need to let them sit longer, they’ll still be good for a few months yet, so no need to rush. It’ll give you something constructive to do indoors in January when you hate the world and all of it’s icy death winds. The first year I cracked walnuts, I sat on the cold basement floor with a big rock, a hammer, and an old towel. I would set the nut on the rock, hold the towel over the top so shards didn’t go flying everywhere, and hit it with the hammer. Then I’d use my little picker thingy to pull the nut meat out. This does work, but it’s hard on your butt and takes for freaking ever.

I bought a black walnut cracker, which Nik very nicely attached to some old boards as a little table so I can use my body weight to counter the force that’s required to press down on the lever. Some people tell you to run the walnuts over with your car to crack them, but I honestly think that’s a dumb idea; not only is it unreliable, but even if it works, your tires are going to shoot nuts all over the neighborhood and probably kill a cat or something. Anyway, here’s a video clip of me cracking a nut:

Using the black walnut cracker for the first time

Black walnuts are F*CKING DELICIOUS. The holy grail of nuts, in my opinion. These are especially tasty to me probably because of all the hard work I put into getting them, but even commercially-purchased black walnuts are crazy expensive. Now you know why!

Just yesterday I cracked a few nuts and toasted them, and made myself a big jar of black walnut extract. It has to sit for two months, but it’s a delicious addition to cakes, cookies, and the occasional iced coffee I will drink. The nuts themselves are great in baked goods or just eaten as a snack. They are super nutritious and worth every ounce of effort I put into harvesting them.

Toasted black walnut extract

Have you ever eaten a black walnut? I might be willing to sell some of my harvest over the winter, if you ask me nicely. Or if you want to come help me crack them…

Please follow me on Facebook and Instagram to keep up with regular posts about foraging and harvesting wild (and cultivated) foods and herbs. I am happy to teach foraging and harvesting classes for you at your facility or property, just use the Contact Us Form to send me a request.

Summer Mushroom Foraging

I don’t usually have enough time to create a blog post over the summer and early autumn months, for what should be obvious reasons. The gardens look atrocious right now, as I have neglected clean up in favor of harvesting and preserving before it’s too late. I wanted to share a brief glimpse of some of the wild foraging I have been doing over the course of the season.

I’ve been getting braver every year with mushroom hunting, and have been learning to identify and eat/make medicine with more species. This year I’ve found morels, Berkeley’s polypore, black staining polypore, hen of the woods, chanterelles, craterellus ignigolor (an edible chanterelle lookalike,) black trumpets, small white puffballs, turkey tails, reishi (ganoderma tsugae,) and honey mushrooms. I think there are a few more varieties, but those are the ones I could easily identify and harvest enough to save at home. All mushrooms should be cooked before eating them, but some can just be lightly sautéed in butter. Most of the mushrooms ended up in my dehydrator to be dried and stored for later use.

Reishi and turkey tail mushrooms make incredibly powerful medicine that improves immune system functioning. Turkey tail mushrooms even have reported cancer-fighting benefits. Most of the other mushrooms I have been foraging mainly for eating purposes, but all mushrooms hold tons of vitamins and extra benefits that modern produced vegetables just can’t beat. Check out this list of some commonly foraged mushrooms!

In order to retain the mushroomy goodness in an easy form, I made a broth with a combination of a little of almost all of these. I simmered slowly for about 4 hours, then strained and poured this into ice cube trays so I can just pop one into whatever soup or water I am boiling (like for pasta or rice.) The ice cube size keeps the amount of broth small enough not to change the flavor of what I am cooking, but still add precious vitamins and minerals to my food. The broth itself is a medicinal powerhouse but I can honestly say taking a sip of it was not a tasty experience. I also started tinctures of the reishi and turkey tail, which I need to strain soon (now that I think about it) and remove the mushrooms to do a water decoction. Different constituents are extracted with different methods, so I do a double decocted tincture with my foraged medicinal mushrooms. Then I strain and combine equal parts decoction with the alcohol extraction to create a tincture fit for fighting bodily crime.

Mushroom broth

For whatever reason, life and the Great Spirit have given me the gift of being able to learn and recognize both plants and mushrooms with more ease than most people. I am very grateful for this, and hope to share it with more people as time goes on. If you would like to book a foraging class or hire me to come walk your land and show you all the edible species right under your nose, please utilize the Contact Us form. Obviously winter is not the best time to forage, but I can help you from now through early November, or any time starting in early April through the rest of the year. I occasionally arrange foraging classes on my own, but I can be available for private functions as well. I can do Herb Walks, Mushroom Walks, Edible Walks, or even teach a class on how to make some simple medicines or foods with the ingredients we find.

Keep an eye on my blog and Facebook or Instagram pages for more foraging posts and finds! And go watch Fantastic Fungi if you haven’t done so yet. It’ll blow your mind!