20 August 2011

Shaker Switchel ... and Pot Roast

This post is about this pot roast, but it's really about more than that ... maybe some nostalgia, a fun adventure, hanging with my son, and re-creating an obscure piece of food history. All that and dinner in the deal ...

Switchel Braised Pot Roast with Sage and Mushrooms

... a tablescape in the kitchens at Hancock Shaker Village
Have you ever felt a strong tug from the past ? I don't mean a feeling of nostalgia. I mean a yank ... a strong urge that compels you to go in a certain direction, time-wise. Last summer, I called my son and asked him to go with me to western Massachusetts'  Hancock Shaker Village. Our visit was one of the most intense and excellent experiences I've ever had ... our joint love of American history, gardening and herb lore, the strong feeling that education and apprenticeships in the traditional crafts must be preserved,  the appreciation of the summer weather, and a wish for the ability to time travel came into play during our day there.

...nothing like a well-tended farm

It was a quiet day with my youngest - time that was undivided and so perfectly suited to our interests. It made for easy conversation, moments of excited sharing and 'look at this!' arm tugs, and a quiet ride in each other's company. While special in those moments, it was also a reminder of other times when it was just me and the kids in the car - camping trips, trips to other living history places in New England, other family vacations. Times gone by and yet this Mom's dream re-visited ... especially since my son is in his twenties and days like that are hard to come by!

The gardens were lush and filling out in preparation for harvest, the meadow grasses were knee-high and ready for their first hay cutting. The locusts were buzzing and it was warm ... high summer, for sure.

I took photos that day ... Eric encouraged me. No one else was around to discourage me. I bought a cookbook on our way out of the 'community'... and rosewater produced at the Maine Sabbathday Lake Shaker community. We sat and had a picnic, talking over the place and promising each other to do another daytrip together. After dropping him in Keene, I went home and read all I could get my hands on about Shaker history in America and the Shaker sub-culture. 

Out of all that reading came an interest in this recipe, which is really two recipes.When I read about the history and use of this cool summer drink, I could close my eyes and see those gardens and fields at Hancock. Fast forward to our summer right now. The local farmer's are looking to get their second hay cutting done, there are crickets and locust doing their 'September song', and the sky is taking on that deep blue of late Summer and early Fall. It's time to make Switchel one last time and then a pot roast.

Switchel is an 18th century drink made from some local and some exotic ingredients to quench the thirst of the farmers and laborers during the hot and sweltering days of summer ... days spent haying and bringing in the fruit and vegetable harvest. It is a molasses ginger 'beer' made from cold spring water, cider vinegar, grated ginger root, molasses, and brown sugar. Here in New England, there are various combinations of ingredients. The molasses is sometimes 'switched' out for maple syrup. I'm not going there, though.

The other evening, my intent was to make a pot roast that the Shakers perfected. Switchel was used to braise this pot roast. I think it interesting that this recipe is used just about the time when the Autumn rains begin. The mushrooms pop up in the woods. The herbs are ready to be harvested and dried for winter use. That Yankee mentality of using what is seasonal and local and not wasting a thing comes into play here... batches of switchel made for the last haying get used. Garden vegetables and herbs that meld well with a beef pot roast are being harvested and are at their prime... life is good.

And so is the pot roast! But first, the switchel ...

Shaker Switchel


1/2 c. brown sugar
1/4 c. molasses
1/3 c. cider vinegar
1/2 tsp. grated ginger
1 quart water

Stir all the ingredients together in a deep bowl. Let the switchel sit overnight to allow the ginger to release its spiciness.

Then stir well again and chill. Strain the switchel through a cheesecloth and bottle up or place in a pitcher. Keep it chilled and in a dark place. Use it within a few days.

Pot Roast Braised in Shaker Switchel with Wild Mushrooms and Fresh Sage


3 to 4 lb. beef chuck roast
1 medium onion chopped
1 lb. edible wild mushrooms (I used Crimini mushrooms)- brushed clean and quartered
¼ c. minced fresh sage leaves
2 c. Shaker Switchel

Making the Dish:

1. Place the roast in an oven braising pan and sear in a 500°F oven for 20 minutes, turning to brown on all sides. (I did mine on the stovetop in a covered cazuela with a heat diffuser under it.)

2. Add the onion, mushrooms, and sage and brown them abit before adding the Switchel.

3. Carefully pour the Switchel over and around the meat and onions and mushrooms. Cover the pan and turn the oven temperature down to 300°F.

4. Braise the roast for 1½ to 2 hours or until the meat is tender.

5. Thinly slice the roast and serve with the braising sauce and onions and mushrooms.

6.  Roast potatoes and carrots in another pan with a few sprigs of sage and rosemary and a bit of olive oil to carry the sage element throughout the plate. 

Delicious! The braising fluids, combined with the sage, are perfectly balanced between sweet and tangy and green from the herb ... the two hour braise softens the meat, but doesn't get it to the point of falling apart. It sliced nicely and was moist. The 'chunked' mushrooms were still somewhat firm, so they had form and weren't mushy. It was really a perfect pot roast! You could easily halve the switchel recipe to make just enough braising fluid for the dish, if you didn't want some extra 'haymaker's punch' to sip after mowing the lawn or gardening, or cleaning the garage, or washing the car, or, doing some other outdoor task, but then you wouldn't have that little taste from the past to think about.


  1. Once again your post made me feel like I was right there with you - I so enjoyed reading it! I've never heard of switchel before - very interesting! And I absolutely love that photo you took of the white cottage with the flowers in the front. I keep going back to look at. Wonderful post!

  2. What a beautiful post. I have never heard of switchel. I think my husband would like it. The pot roast looks divine. My favorite part of this post was your memories of this beautiful day spent with your adult son. I'm glad to hear that when they are grown up, they still will spend some time with their Mom. Thanks for sharing! Have a beautiful weekend!

  3. What a lovely post. I can really relate to the time you enjoyed with your son as I have two sons in their twenties.
    It all looks great, well done.

  4. I loved this post. It's so nice to read about the story behind the recipe. The swichel seems easy to make its really just planing ahead a day. We love a good old fashioned pot roast. You have to make notecards from these photos especially the white shed with the gorgeous flowers.

  5. Love Hancock Shaker Village! I visited it many, many years ago. Judging by your photos, it's still as magnificent as ever. And the round barn. Love it! I can remember a sibling's high school teacher saying there was no such thing. HA! I've made Switchel many, many times. It IS mighty tasty and thirst-quenching. However, it was an alcoholic drink in the 18th century, one that was usually made with rum. But the burgeoning Temperance Movement of the early 19th century led to the creation of the non-alcoholic version, wherein the rum was substituted with vinegar. Ahhh, a glass of cool 'n refreshing Switchel...the Red Bull of the early 1800s!

  6. @ Carolina - I love your comments! You have a base of knowledge that many of us regular old foodbloggers just don't have! I had read about the use of rum in switchel and some other type of booze ... maybe hard cider, but we don't need it in the grey cottage. We drink wine and beer ... wink, wink! Although, I do have a rum cocktail coming to post in the next couple days ... just waiting for the last heatwave of August to hit!

  7. The butterflies are beautiful! I'm not really a bug person myself, but last week I had the chance to see a lot of dead preserved bugs at the camp that I volunteer at, so now I get less freaked out. The pot roast looks delicious. I love hearty meals like these, the ones that taste even better as leftovers.

  8. this looks so interesting... I love the switchel, it sounds wonderfully rich and deep with flavour... I bet that meat tasted amazing!... I also know exactly what you mean about going back in time... I often wish I could open a window in time and at least look through into the past... lovely post Susan!


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