Down South: What Does Sassafras Taste Like?

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[Photograph: Jed Portman]

If you live in the eastern United States, especially the southeastern United States, there's a good chance that there is a sassafras tree somewhere near you. Next time you're in the woods, or in your backyard, look out for that distinctive leaf, which is often divided into three bulbous prongs but can also be mitten-shaped or oval—it's not uncommon to see all three leaf shapes on the same branch.

The sassafras is a good-looking tree, but a better-tasting one. If you find a cluster of saplings, as you often will near larger sassafras trees, dig one or two of them up. Cut the roots, best when they are full of sap in the winter and early spring, and lay them somewhere cool and dark to dry for a couple of weeks (if storing long-term, place them in airtight plastic bags and freeze them after they've dried, to preserve flavor).

For a quick shot of spicy sassafras, you can snap off and chew a twig. But the dried root, which tastes heavier and earthier, makes the best tea. I boil the root whole—after a careful scrubbing, of course, to remove dirt, though not so careful a scrubbing that I remove the flavorful root bark. When the boiling water is dark, the tea is ready. It should be strained through a coffee filter to remove solids, then sweetened to taste.

You'll find that sassafras tea tastes an awful lot like root beer. There's a reason for that. Sassafras was a common ingredient in root beer and other sodas until 1960, when the FDA banned it in commercial food and drugs. FDA studies had determined that safrole, a component of sassafras, caused liver damage and cancer when consumed in mass amounts by rats.

I take that with a grain of salt. Sassafras tea has been a part of the American diet for a long time. The Cherokee drank it as medicine. Our founding fathers drank it, as did the British, who shipped it across the Atlantic in massive amounts two and three centuries ago. Generations of Appalachian settlers and their descendants drank it, and continue to drink it. All things in moderation, I say, including sassafras tea.

But if you are of the nervous persuasion, there are safe alternatives to wild sassafras. On a drive through Kentucky a few weeks ago, I bought a bottle of Old Honey Barn's sassafras tea concentrate. Like the commercial sassafras extract still used in root beer and other sodas, Old Honey Barn's product contains no safrole.

And it tastes fine, delivering a mild but accurate sassafras flavor when mixed with water in the proportions indicated on the label. I can endorse it in some cases—if there aren't sassafras trees where you live, or if you aren't in a place where you can go digging saplings, it's a workable substitute, and better than other options on the market—but when has concentrate ever bested fresh flavor?

We're heading into sassafras season, that time of the year when sassafras is best harvested and best enjoyed. Take time this fall or winter to brew a pot of sassafras tea. Not only will you be upholding a national tradition but, whether you make your tea from root or from concentrate, there's not much that's more comforting than a warm, earthy mugful when it's cold outside.

Are any of you sassafras fans already? Dug the root? Tried any of the concentrates? Let's talk in the comments section.

About the Author: Jed Portman is blogging his way to that cabin in East Tennessee, one six-pack of soda and barbecue platter at a time. Follow him on Twitter @jdportman.

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