Thursday March 10, 2011

Experimental Sassafras epicurious, indeed

Sassafras trees grow wild in many parts of the United States and Americans have not neglected its abundance. For a time, they prized it primarily for its sweet smelling wood (from which they could craft bedbug repelling bed-frames), but it didn’t take them long to realize: this stuff’s too yummy for furniture!

sassafras bark

They found grinding its leaves into powder produced a delicious substance that could thicken stews and thus invented gumbo filé, which soon became a hallmark of the Creole kitchen. Early American settlers learned from American Indians how to brew sassafras tea from the root bark (pictured above) and drank it has an herbal remedy. Later they made sassafras the original root in root beer and used it as an important ingredient in Sasparilla, a different but related beverage. Those first Sassafras supporters didn’t know how or why it tasted so good, but a few hundred years later, we do. Sassafras root contains an essential oil called safrole which imparts that characteristic licorice flavor.

Not that you’ve ever tasted it. The FDA banned safrole for use as a food additive back in 1976.

Nevertheless, folk medicine enthusiasts insist safrole has medicinal value. They can buy a $5 bundle of sassafras at their local farmers’ market or online (sold ostensibly for use in soap making or aromatherapy) and brew up a gallon of sassafras tea to ward off gastrointestinal problems, bronchitis, and certain skin ailments. Though many rave about the results, they remain unproven.

Others take that same $5 bundle of sassafras back to their MDMA Lab and with the help of a palladium catalyst, crank out around 400 tabs of Ecstasy to hawk on the black market for about $5k. The rave results of this product, however, have been proven.

Perhaps I oversimplify the process, but still. All that stands between safrole and amphetamines? One measly molecule of ammonia.

But that’s not the only reason for the FDA ban on safrole as a food additive. It may also cause cancer! For these reasons, root beer manufacturers use a safrole free sassafras extract in modern beverages. (The kids over at CHOW wrote a concise article on sassafras, safrole, and its history with the FDA here, if you’d like to read more on the topic.)

The negative health effects of safrole have to do with ingesting moderate amounts of it on a regular basis. Safrole occurs naturally in many spices, like cinnamon and black pepper, so it would seem consuming minute amounts of naturally occurring safrole have little to no health concerns.

When steeped in a hot liquid, sassafras will of course give up some of its safrole. But the amount pales in comparison to the pure safrole oil obtained in a lab (legal or otherwise) via steam distillation. And it’s this pure oil that could, with only minor adjustments, turn into X.

Thus the sale of sassafras root remains largely unregulated while the FDA strictly controls the sale of pure safrole. In fact, companies that sell the oil are required to report back to the FDA should a customer purchase a suspicious amount. If you ever run across safrole oil sold in a small bottle, it should under no circumstance find its way into your pantry.

But you may one day find Sassafras bark at a farmers’ market or even in your own back yard. Having researched this issue somewhat, I’d advise you not to make a regular habit of consuming the stuff. But as one filled with epicurean curiosity, I’d also say to give it a try at least once. Since I stand on the culinary and not pharmacological side of this issue, let me clearly define “give it a try.” Use your powers of sassafras for good, not evil. Tasty, not ecstasy.

plated Fruit Dessert

Hipsters and hippies, take notice. Forget your stupid pot brownies. Yawn! BraveTart ushers in new era of edgy epicurean: ecstasy anglaise!

I jest. The only ecstasy involved in this dessert comes from the joy your taste buds will experience after your first bite of tender black tea and orange poached pears swimming in creamy sassafras anglaise and offset by the crunch of banana brûlée.

If you served this at a dinner party, though, let me assure you, your guests will rave.

I know. I slay me.

Back to dessert. As a rule, composed desserts should combine contrasting yet complementary flavors, colors, and textures. In this case, though, I deliberately tried to invoke a great deal of sameness; from intentionally soft & creamy textures to predominately fruity flavors and the monochromatic color scheme (hopefully calling to mind the earthy tones of root beer with its frothy head).

I wanted to create a dessert that, when taken as a whole, would echo the flavors of a root beer float in every bite. Vanilla bean in the poaching liquid highlights the cream in the anglaise. Burnt sugar lends a bitter caramel edge to the fruity sweetness of the banana and pears. The bright flavor of orange balances the dark, smokiness of the black tea.

Pear Sassafras

If you ever stumble across some sassafras bark and fancy yourself the sort of culinary risk taker who’d dare to consume anything laced with safrole, give sassafras anglaise a try! If nothing else, enjoy the black tea and orange poached pears alone or à la mode.

What do you think? Do you find the potential health risk posed by sassafras a deal breaker, or does the risky nature make it all the more alluring?

posted byStellaand filed under:  Farms  Fruit  Gluten Free  Sideshow Photos  Vanilla

14 comments and counting

Mar 11, 2011 ·  8:47 AM

Risk, schmisk! ‘Frass me, baby! Your supporting video choice is nothing short of perfect.

 · Mallowsota · 

Mar 11, 2011 ·  4:28 PM

Love it! Who would’ve known sassafras has such wild roots

 · Lauren ·

Mar 11, 2011 ·  5:54 PM

Long before Adam knew or cared about the FDA he would wander through the woods and chew on sassafras leaves for hours. Curiously he is not a big fan of root-beer, go figure! This is a tempting dessert and OMG the central photo, it’s a work of art!

 · Cheryl and Adam ·

Mar 12, 2011 ·  6:44 PM

@Mallowsota, I will be in touch regarding a future frassing for you.

@Lauren: I know, right? Root beer has such a squeaky clean image, it’s hard to imagine it’s directly related to MDMA.

@Cheryl, from what I gather, the leaves do not contain any safrole, which is why file powder is unregulated in any way, and perhaps why is root beer hating heart still liked it? I’m actually not a big root beer fan myself, I made this for my husband who is bonkers for root beer.


Sep 18, 2011 ·  8:17 AM

I grew up drinking sassafras tea. My entire extended family loved the aroma as it brewed. The color was red-amber and the taste was heavenly, nothing like it anywhere. I miss it. The “desafroled” junk just plain fails. None in my family have contracted cancer, but I certainly do have a case of dyspepsia from long-pointy-nosed government meddlers.

 · Neuman · 

Jan 23, 2012 ·  6:24 PM

yeah i never did believe everything the government said, as a kid and still to this day i drink sassafras tea and when i dare steal a root will boil that as well, as yet i have not gotten cancer or high but the tea is soothing and relaxing, also helps with constipation and much more mild than e-lax. i will always drink sass tea!

 · sassafire · 

Jan 24, 2012 · 10:30 AM

@sassafire, haha, I did not know it had those sorts of properties! I just love it for its wonderful flavor. Enjoy your tea!


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 · jagody goji Kendra ·

Sep 20, 2017 ·  9:54 PM

The leaves and root are very different in taste. Growing up we chewed the leaves for a dry mouth and chewed the roots bark if we were hungry to curb our appetite.
My favorite roots bark was from sassafras I collected in a pine forest in the fall — I believe it was white pine — it had long needles. The dirt was soft so it was easy to pull.
Anyways I’d pull up trees that were about 3 or 4 feet high and get a bunch of about 1/2 inch thick root. I’d wash the roots with water and shave the bark from the roots with the edge of a knife. I’d take the root bark — may be 1/4 cup more or less and boil it in a quart or 2 of water for 15 minutes and add maple syrup. It’s delicious and gives a mildly pleasant feeling. If you are lazy you could try boiling the roots without stripping them. I think the smaller roots are more tender.
If you make a pipe out of the root wood (possibly the branch wood too?) it will taste like sassafras every time you smoke. I haven’t smoked in almost 35 years but the pipe I made tasted like sassafras for a couple of years before I lost it.
The only studies I know of causing liver cancer were injecting large amounts of the pure oil into the abdomen of rats. If you are a rat don’t inject large amounts of safrole into your abdomen.
The leaves are fragrant too and I don’t believe they have much or any safrole. They have an okra like gooey quality. Chew them fresh or dry them and make soup thickener from the powder.

Good article. Thanks!

 · Doug ·


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