What's Fabulous: Verjus
Verjus. Or Verjuice. From the French for "green juice."
Verjus is the unfermented juice of unripe grapes. Having absolutely no resemblance to Welch's, verjuice is pure, unsweetened, and undiluted grape juice. In the spirit of "waste nothing," young, green grapes are picked six weeks or so prior to the full harvest, often to thin the vines to help the best grapes reach full maturity, and then they're crushed. The juice becomes verjus.
Before you dismiss verjus as too arcane, consider this. It is an ingredient that is both ancient and modern. Food historians trace its use back to the Romans but it's also actively used by many of our best and most innovative chefs.
It is tart and sour with a faintly sweet resonance and yet its flavor is flat. It tastes like vinegar without the acid; white wine without the complexity. Verjus is a way to add sourness to a dish as done with a squirt of lemon or a teaspoon of vinegar. And because it's unfermented and has no alcohol, it's wine-friendly so you can add verjus to any dish and know it won't compete with the wine you serve with it.
It's particularly popular in French and Middle Eastern cooking (in Arabic it's known as husroum) and is used with a light hand, the same as when adding citrus juice or vinegar to a recipe. Paula Wolfert, in her masterful cookbook, The Cooking of Southwestern France, not only uses verjus in several recipes, including a few drops added to finish her remarkable "Braised Short Ribs in Cèpe-Prune Sauce" (a recipe worth buying the book for; it also includes instructions for making your own verjus using a food processor, kitchen towel and a sieve, although you also need a source for perfectly unripe green grapes).
Most verjus we see in our markets is white, or to be more precise, a pale yellow, but in fact it's made as wine is, as both white or red (actually more like a rosé), and its intensity will range from mild to aggressive; you'll need to taste one to be sure of its flavor.
Because it is not fermented like wine or vinegar, verjus must be refrigerated once a bottle is opened and will last about 3 months. But because it has no alcohol, it also can be poured into an ice cube tray and frozen.
Cooking With Verjus
- When making a salad that includes fruit, as in a Pear and Endive Salad with Blue Cheese, replace half of the vinegar in the dressing with verjus to soften the flavor. Here's our recipe for both the salad and its Mustard Verjus Vinaigrette.
- Use verjus instead of lemon juice or vinegar when making mayonnaise.
- Add to marinades for pork, as when marinating pork ribs. Similarly, it makes a great addition to barbecue sauces in place of or along with vinegar.
- Use in sauces that will be used with poultry, especially duck, which goes well with fruit-based flavors as in the iconic duck with orange sauce. A few drops of verjus added to the sauce will cut the often extreme sweetness of this orange glaze.
- Use it to deglaze pans, especially if you prefer to use non-alcoholic liquids for deglazing but want something with more complexity than broth.
- Drizzle a little on seasonal fruit as you would with balsamic vinegar, as with strawberries.
- Add a little to desserts and dessert sauces, in the same way that salt can give a whole new magic to chocolate or caramel. For example, add a few teaspoons to your favorite applesauce.
- Mix with sparkling water and a little sugar for a refreshing summer alternative to lemonade.
- Use as a poaching liquid for fish or chicken breasts and then reduce it to a syrup, adding a little butter to make a verjus sauce.
- Add to chutneys or conserves.
- Verjus sorbet is seen often on the menus of some of our best restaurants, including Thomas Keller's French Laundry. We've added a link to a simple recipe for how to make one, from a Canadian vineyard that makes its own verjus.
Verjus is made all over the world -- wherever wine is produced -- although because grapes are grown to reach full flavor so to become wine, most vineyards that make verjus don't divert too much of their crop to this secondary product. Still, some small, artisanal producers in California, Australia and France make some of the best, albeit in small quantities, so if a vacation takes you to any wine country, keep an eye out for verjus.
A 750 ml bottle costs from about $7.00 to $20.00, depending on the producer and if the grapes are a particular varietal.
Verjus can be bought online (Amazon has a large selection) and directly from vineyards that produce it, such as Wolffer, Fusion and Navarro. It's also increasingly easy to find at our better merchants. In New York you can find it at Fairway, Zabar's, and Kalustyan's.
Each brand and producer is different and the only way you can find one you like is by trying different brands and tasting them. If you're planning on using the verjus primarily to deglaze pans and use in salad dressings, you may not need to pay for a premium one. But if the verjus is going to be the main ingredient, as in sorbet, try to buy the best you can find.