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What’s in root beer?

There are hundreds of root beer brands in the United States, and there is no standardized recipe. The primary ingredient, artificial sassafras flavoring, is complemented with other flavors, including vanilla, sarsaparilla, licorice root, anise, molasses, fennel, star anise, hops, fenugreek, allspice, nutmeg, clove, cinnamon, and ginger.

Not depicted in the video was how I started this dish, which was by making a huge batch of veal stock. Alinea’s version of veal stock is similar to that explained in The French Laundry cookbook, albeit a bit more streamlined. The basic idea is to gently simmer veal bones and some vegetables for two sessions of 8 hours each, combining the results of the two sessions, and reducing the lot to a thick, unctuous, delicious stock. This in practice takes 3 solid days’ work, especially when agitated by my insistence on doubling the recipe so that I’d have an ample surplus of the stock to last me through several upcoming dishes that require it. Just accepting the recipe’s face-value instructions to cook some bones, vegetables, and tomato paste for 8 hours fails to include the nearly two hours it takes to prepare the ingredients and bring a giant pot of water up to temperature. Indeed, the final ‘step’ is “reduce until the stock thickens”, with no mention of the full day this takes. There’s no fire-and-forget on this either; you need to be skimming the entire time the stock simmers. It is an act of extreme care, focus, sensitivity, and zen…not unlike sanding a large piece or furniture. I really, really enjoyed it. In the end it yielded me about a dozen small 250g containers of stock, which I’m keeping in my freezer until they’re called for.

Stock made, I started in on the dish proper by mixing a powdery Root Beer Cure. This contained ground sassafras, peppercorns, fennel seeds, juniper berries, star anise, vanilla, salt, and sugar. The ground sassafras might be the most exotic ingredient of the bunch; sassafras is difficult to come by (hint: look for it in holistic/medicinal herb-type stores) and is never used in modern-day root beer because of its content of safrole, which was found to be weakly-carcinogenic in rats and therefore condemned by the FDA–though the more-likely reason The Man dislikes it is because it’s a key ingredient used in the manufacture of MDMA. In reality, safrole is generally no more dangerous to humans than breathing indoor air or drinking municipal water, and the amount of safrole to be found in sassafras bark (which is what I was working with) generally has too low a yield and too high a retrieval effort to be seriously considered for anything other than perfumery applications or–if you’re a dude working your way through a pretty crazy cookbook–culinary use.

In shopping for these spices for the uncountable-th time, I became disgusted with the ridiculous prices for them in small quantities in most grocery shops, and decided to bite the bullet and order larger amounts from The Spice House, so happy have I been with previous stuff purchased from those guys. A few days after I placed my order, a handful of large bags containing very fresh and vibrant spices showed up ready for use. Two thumbs up for going this route if you rip through spices at a slightly-above-average rate.

Juniper berries

Star Anise

This is the sassafras bark I used; it smells overwhelmingly ‘root-beer-y’, but also has a much greater depth and complexity than does a sip of A&W. There’s a minty element to it, not dissimilar from eucalyptus, in addition to the earthier and more-familiar undertones of root beer it carries.

Tahitian Vanilla Bean

Black Peppercorns

Fennel Seeds

A tricky part to this dish is that most components need to be held warm after they’ve been made; the vanilla potato foam, root beer sauce, and glazed fennel all lose their vitality after a short amount of time and if they drift too far from the ‘warm water bath/oven draft’ temperature range, so once the long steps of making the stock and curing the beef short ribs were complete, it was a long day of cooking to complete everything else, working to synchronize completion times as much as possible.

Some might notice my heeding of the great advice offered in the comment sections of previous meat-related posts to try upping my sous-vide-meat-appreciation game by pre-searing the meat before bagging it; a trick that worked delightfully and yielded braised beef that was meltingly-tender and amazingly flavorful. This tip plus some other experience-derived common-sense steps to try to maximize the awesomeness of the whole dish all worked in my favor, and the final plating was one I feel very happy with. Sarah–who’s relationship with meat is waning daily and who is hairs away from being full-on vegetarian–surprised me by asserting how much she genuinely enjoyed it.

The extremely-beefy root beer-cured braised beef cubes are warm and very savory, but their manliness is tempered by the soft, airy aromatic sweetness of the vanilla potato foam. The caramelized salsify seems almost to be a play on french fries always served with a burger and root beer (Chef Achatz mentions his original inspiration for this dish came while eating at an A&W in Michigan); they’re slightly crisp on the outside but yield to soft buttery warmth inside. Garnishes of warm prune and fresh fennel fronds are lovely accents, the sweetness of the prune further balancing the weight of the beef. Favoritest Component Award for both Sarah and I goes, however, to the glazed fennel. Sarah strongly dislikes fennel (she dislikes the anethole-fueled, black licorice aspect of it), but when it’s glazed in butter its other subtle flavors come forward to be more assertively sweet.

Perhaps-anticlimactically, I didn’t get an overall impression of root beer though. Everything tasted delicious, but if I didn’t know I was meant to be looking for flavors of root beer, I’m not sure I would have found them. Even the root beer sauce that glazes the beef cubes, nearly half of which is made of the veal stock, is more ‘veal stocky’ than ‘root beery’ for me. It’s possible I over-reduced my veal stock, perhaps, and it’s uber-concentrated flavor is just too loud for the fennel and sassafras notes–that I know are in there–to be heard.

Join the discussion One Comment

  • Katie says:

    Allen, this dish sounds incredible, even if the root beer flavourings didn’t really come through.

    I’m a fan of the Spice House too. Have you tried their dehydrated corn? It isn’t bad to snack on just on its own, and it makes for awesome Milk Bar corn cookies (they taste like cornbread!).