Recipe: Switchel (1853)

Switchel, Photo: Eric Colleary

Spring has finally sprung, and my first year teaching at Macalester College has come to an end. In Minneapolis, where I currently live, spring is a welcome sight after what are inevitably very long, very cold winters. Spring means t-shirts and shorts at the first hint of 40+ degree weather. Weeknights are spent around the city’s many lakes, and weekends bring a mass exodus from the city as families take to their cabins out in the woods.

Spring also brings flowers. And pollen. And if you suffer at all from allergies, you’ll want to know about switchel.

"Son of day laborer on farm near Ralls, Texas." by Russell Lee, 1939Also known as Harvest Drink, Harvest Beer, Swanky, Haymakers Punch, and a host of other aliases, switchel is a refreshing beverage that has been fortifying the American immune system since at least the founding of this nation.

At its most basic, switchel is water, cider vinegar, ginger and a sweetener (molasses, honey, sorghum, etc.). Rum, whiskey, brandy or hard cider can be added to give it a bit more oomph. I’ve seen some recipes, particularly in the south, that add cayenne pepper to the mix as a cold cure.

One of the earliest written references to switchel comes from Philip Freneau, known as the “Poet of the American Revolution,” in his 1789 poem “On the Demolition of an Old College.” Describing an incident at Dartmouth College where a group of students tried to take down an old log building, Freneau suggests switchel is not boozy enough to lead a man to destruction:

Relent, relent! to accomplish such designs “Folks bred on college fare are much too weak;” For such attempts men drink your high-proof wines,
Not spiritless switchel and vile hogo drams, “Scarcely sufficient to digest your Greek–“

Each cook had their own recipe for switchel. The amount of each ingredient depended largely on the personal tastes of those making it, and exact measuring wasn’t necessary – one would simply add more of something until it tasted right. Sweetners depended on what was available. Molasses was more common in New England where the rum trade from the Carribean made the black syrup a staple on pantry shelves. In the frontier, switchel would often be made with honey, and in the south, sorghum would be used to soften the beverage’s bite.

The spicy brew would often be made in large batches, and carried out into the fields in ceramic jugs. To keep it chilled, jugs would be stashed away under the shade of a tree or partially submerged in a cool stream. For centuries, farmers have sworn on switchel – claiming it quenches the thirst, clears the throat and nose of dirt and hay, provides a boost of energy, and keeps the body from getting sick.

'In the barley harvest' by Peter Henry Emerson (1890)Since switchel was mainly for farmers and those who toiled outside, recipes for it were left out of the earlier American cookbooks aimed at higher-class households. One of the earliest comes from Elizabeth Hall’s Practical American Cookery and Domestic Economy (1853).

TIPS AND TRICKS

Powdered ginger is traditional at least into the 19th century, but the powder never completely dissolves. If this bothers you, I’d recommend taking a large, peeled chunk of fresh ginger, cutting it into smaller chunks, and simmering it in six cups of water. Cook it down to five cups to make a strong ginger-infused base. Let it cool completely before adding the remaining ingredients. Note that this method will not produce as strong of a ginger flavor as it does using powdered.

I’ve seen a couple more recent recipes mention heating the mixture to help dissolve the powdered ginger. I doubt most farm cooks would have done this. Not only would you be using up a lot of fuel to cook it down, you’d be making it during the hotter seasons of the year, and you want the finished product as cool as possible. I also think that boiling switchel might kill some of the health benefits of the cider vinegar.

Try to get your hands on raw, unfiltered cider vinegar. You can get it online, as well as in health food stores and natural food co-ops.

If you are trying a sweetner other than molasses, realize it will have a different sugar content and you will need to add more or less to taste. Add a bit at a time and keep testing till you get the right proportion. If you add too much, you can always add more ginger, vinegar and water.

THE TAKE-AWAY

"Rice farmer drinking in the fields, Crowley, Louisiana" by Russell Lee, 1938This is a remarkably refreshing beverage that I would easily make any time of the year. The vinegar and the ginger give it a nice bite, while the molasses keeps it from being overpowering. I was afraid it might be cloyingly sweet, or overly spicy, but Hall’s recipe is superbly balanced.

I can see the centuries-old appeal of switchel. You don’t need to heat anything. You’re using ingredients that don’t need to be prepared. It comes together quickly and can be stored for a decent amount of time. Switchel’s simplicity made it the base recipe for so many possible variations. Have company? Add rum and maybe some chopped fruit and a cinnamon stick to make a punch.

Switchel is experiencing something of a come-back in this age of home remedies and craft brewing. I have even heard of some entrepreneurial folks selling it in jars at farmers markets.

The variations on switchel can be plentiful. Let your imagination guide you and once you’ve tried it on its own, play with it. Remember that each household made it to their own tastes. Add muddled berries or sliced citrus fruits. Try it with a splash of bourbon and some crushed mint. Make a couple bottles for a picnic, or put it in mason jars with lids to take camping.

The Recipe

Harvest Drink. Mix with five gallons of good water, half a gallon of molasses, one quart of vinegar, and two ounces of powdered ginger. This will make not only a very pleasant beverage, but one highly invigorating and healthful.

From Practical American Cookery and Domestic Economy, Elizabeth Hall (Miller, Orton & Co: New York, 1853) [Link to 1860 edition]

Reduced Adaptation:
5 cups of cold water
½ cup of blackstrap molasses
¼ cup of apple cider vinegar (preferably raw, unfiltered)
3 tablespoons ground ginger

Mix ingredients thoroughly. Store in jars, jugs or bottles. Shake before serving. Serve cold.

4 Comments

on “Recipe: Switchel (1853)
4 Comments on “Recipe: Switchel (1853)
  1. The 3 tablespoons of ginger didn’t seem right, WAy too overpowering. I dropped it down to 1 Teaspoon and taste much better.

    • The 3 tablespoons in the recipe is directly proportional to the historic recipe, but definitely adjust to your taste. Others I have known who have tried this will make it full strength, and cut it with water before serving – finding that cutting the ginger makes the taste of molasses too overpowering. Thanks for your suggestion!

  2. Pingback: Summertime, and the Swiggin’ is…Queasy | Liza Kleinman, Writer

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