Ginger beer: It's got zing

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Unlike ginger ale, its mainstream cousin, ginger beer attracts a more selective audience.

With less sugar to soften its distinctive bite, ginger beer can present a challenge to the palate. Kids who revel in root beer can find themselves with watery eyes if they take a big swig of ginger beer without anticipating the pungent zing.

There are plenty of good ginger beers on the market -- among them Reed's Extra Ginger Brew Ginger Beer, not to be confused with Reed's Original Ginger Brew Ginger Ale, which has much less of a bite than the ginger beer. Other good brands include Barritts and Stewart's.

You can also make your own ginger beer; recipes abound on the Web and other places. Many of them call for time-consuming brewing with yeast and bottling.

But there are simpler versions as well. I tried one and ended up with a gallon or so of a surprisingly refreshing and healthful beverage -- no caffeine, not overloaded with sugar and full of all the good stuff fresh ginger offers. It didn't last long in the refrigerator.

In many parts of the world, ginger is prized for its medicinal qualities: It can ease nausea, soothe a sore throat and even fight bacteria. It also tastes good -- especially in a nice, cold glass or bottle. This homemade version is quite simple, as long as you give yourself time to let it steep. When buying ginger, look for firm pieces with smooth skin and a slight shine. For the freshest taste, avoid ginger with shriveled skin.

West African Ginger Beer

Makes 1 gallon

3 or 4 large fresh gingerroots, about 6 ounces (do not substitute ground ginger)

1 cup sugar

juice of 2 limes or lemons

1 cinnamon stick

4 to 5 whole cloves

Peel the ginger and pound the root to a pulp. Place it in a large ovenproof mixing bowl or stainless-steel container. Heat 6 cups of water to boiling and pour this water over the ginger.

Cover with a lid or clean cloth and put the mixture in a warm, sunny spot or an oven that has been slightly heated then turned off. Let it steep for 1 hour.

Meanwhile, make simple syrup by heating the sugar with 1 cup of water until the sugar dissolves. After the ginger mixture has steeped, strain it through a cheesecloth or paper towel into a large jar or pitcher (or two jars or pitchers, as necessary).

Mix in the citrus juice, simple syrup and spices. Fill the container with lukewarm water to make 1 gallon. Return the mixture to a warm spot and wait another hour.

Strain the ginger beer once more and refrigerate until chilled. Serve over ice.

- Adapted from www.congocookbook.com

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