You know the old saying, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade?” Well, when life gives you unripe grapes, make verjus.
I have a problem. With my book tour running into November, I will not be around to harvest the grapes in my yard. And as they are wine grapes — small, with lots of seeds — they’re not the best for eating off the vine, either. But I hate the idea of wasting a whole year’s crop. So I decided to make verjus.
Verjus, pronounced vehr-ZHOO, is a sort of vinegar made from the juice of unripe grapes. (It can also be spelled “verjuice”) The grapes you see in the picture are not green grapes, they are Zinfandel grapes, which will turn a lovely burgundy in a month or so. You can make verjus with any unripe grapes, even wild ones. You want to pick them before most start turning color.
As you may have surmised by the name, verjus is a French creation. Traditionally it is made with the thinnings of a vineyard’s crop. Most good vineyards will drop fruit around now to make the vines focus their energy on the remaining clusters. This makes better wine down the road. Verjus itself is really nothing more than sour, acidic grape juice. But what it does is give a recipe acidity without the hammer of a true vinegar. A dish acidified with verjus will remain wine-friendly — if you’ve ever eaten vinegar pickles while drinking wine you will know that this is not a good combination…
So how do you make verjus? You will need unripe grapes. Lots of them. Anything you do with grapes requires many pounds for what seems like a small amount of juice. In winemaking, the ratio is typically 12 pounds of grapes to 1 gallon of wine. My verjus ratio was more like 7 pounds of grapes for a mere 6 cups of verjus. So yeah, you need a bucket of grapes to make this.
Fortunately, green grapes grow near you. Most every place in America has wild grapes, usually along riversides. Go find some and fill a 5-gallon bucket full. Or thin your personal vineyard…
how to make verjus
You will need lots of grapes, a food mill, a fine mesh strainer, some Mason jars and some patience. And, if you want your verjus to hold up for a long time in the fridge, you will need a little citric acid. If you really want it to hold up for 6 months or more, add the winemaker’s friend: sodium metabisulfite, which is available at any winemaking shop. This is the “sulfites” you see on wine labels. If you are sensitive to them, skip it.
Makes about 6 cups.
- 7 pounds unripe grapes
- 1/4 teaspoon citric acid
- 1/8 teaspoon sodium metabisulfite
Take most of the stems off the grapes. This will take some time, maybe 30 minutes or so. Longer if you’ve never done it before. But if you don’t do this part, you will have a tough time running the grapes through the food mill.
In batches, grind the grapes through the coarsest plate of your food mill. This will require a little elbow grease.
As you get a slurry of ground-up grapes and grape juice, pour it into a bowl as you work. You will need to work quickly, as the grape juice will oxidize quickly and turn brown. There is really no getting over this, but the faster you work the greener — or at least more golden — your verjus will be. Work slow and it will look like malt vinegar.
Now you need to run the ground grapes through a fine mesh sieve. If you have rubber gloves, put them on. Why? The acid in these grapes made my hands sting for a couple hours after I squeezed the ground-up grapes over the sieve. And yes, you need to squeeze your grapes because you really want as much liquid as you can extract.
Finally, you will need to pour the strained juice into a Mason jar. It’s at this point that you add the citric acid and sodium metabisulfite, if you are using them. Shake the jar well to mix everything in, then put it in the refrigerator for up to 2 days. There will be a very fine layer of sediment on the bottom. You will not be able to strain this off — it is too fine.
So, what you need to do is gently decant it into a clean container. You will lose some verjus, but that’s OK. If you don’t do this step your verjus will oxidize even more. Nothing bad will happen, but it will look ugly.
Bottle and store in the fridge. It should last for several months in the fridge, and up to 9 months if you use the citric acid and sodium metabisulfite.
How to use your verjus? It is an awesome salad dressing — I recently dressed a wild greens salad with verjus and melted wild duck fat at a book dinner we did in San Francisco — and it is a great thing to use wherever you want a gentle acidity.
MORE ON VERJUS
- My recipe for Pheasant Legs with Verjus and Mushrooms
- An ancient method of making verjus, with brandy and vinegar, in 18th Century Cuisine
- Goose Bourguignon, with beet gnocchi and verjus onions, in Salty Seattle
- My friend Paul makes verjus with wild Texas grapes
- My other friend Kate makes verjus in France, just days ago!