Last weekend, I helped my favorite neighbor put nets up over her grapes. With four of us chattering as we worked our way down the rows, the morning flew by and soon we were celebrating our victory over the birds and raccoons with a glass of Haymaker’s Punch in the shade. As she put it, “many hands make light work.”
In the process, we clipped about 3 pounds of unripe grapes that were blocking the nets or too close to the ground. I immediately thought of ver jus, a sour grape juice that I learned about from a winemaker friend in Sonoma.
Ver jus (also vert jus, or “green juice”) has been around since the Middle Ages, and can also be made from unripe apples and berries, or from sorrel (which is taking over my herb garden, so I’ll definitely be trying that soon). It’s used in place of citrus or vinegar, and it’s “wine-friendly,” meaning it won’t overpower the palate as vinegar will if you’re drinking something fancy.
The last place I lived had a big fence full of concord grapes, and I once made a wildly unsuccessful batch of ver jus there. I’d just used up the last of the bottle I bought in Sonoma, and I had several clusters of grapes that were refusing to ripen, so I just ground them up, put the juice through a sieve, and bottled it — sediment and all.
It went moldy within a few weeks.
I’ve been pining for a second chance ever since, so I was overjoyed when the entire basket of sour grapes appeared on my porch last weekend. This time, I did my research first.
To make verjus, you’ll need at least a few pounds of unripe grapes, plus some citric acid to help prevent oxidation. You’ll also need a food mill — I used a Foley mill last time, which works great but requires some elbow grease. This time, I had the food mill attachment for my Kitchen Aid mixer and it made quick work of the grapes. I just put them in the hopper, and watched as it churned out a big carafe of juice and a pile of dried skins and seeds. If you have a juicer, it’ll probably work great too.
I highly recommend having a machine do the juicing if you can, especially because the faster you work the prettier your verjus will be (it turns brown as it oxidizes). For 3 pounds of unripe grapes, put about 1/2 teaspoon of citric acid in the collection vessel and swirl it periodically as the juice collects — this will also help to preserve the delicate green color of your ver jus.
And even if you’re not milling them by hand, don’t underestimate the time you’ll need to remove all the grapes from their stems before you juice them — it’s time-consuming to be sure. So pour a glass of wine, put on a movie, call a friend, whatever you need to do to make it fun instead of tedious.
Once you’ve pressed all the juice from your grapes, put it through a fine-mesh sieve and pour it into a sealed jar without much airspace.
There’s still some stuff that needs to be filtered out, but it’s too fine to get trapped in a sieve — so just let it settle completely, then carefully pour your juice off the top. The smaller the neck of your jar in relation to the sides, the easier this will be (i.e. don’t use a wide-mouth jar).
When made this way, ver jus can be kept in the refrigerator for about 3 months. Some people also add grain alcohol, sugar, and sometimes sulfites to preserve it for long-term storage, but I’ve never had a big enough crop to warrant that. From 3 lbs I got about 30 ounces of ver jus, and my neighbor and I have both made a sizeable dent in our bottles already.
Use it on garden salads, fish, desserts, quick pickles, any dish where you want to add bright acidity without overpowering the flavor.
This is a great way to use sour (unripe) grapes. Use anywhere you want acidity but not the intense flavor of vinegar or citrus -- this is delicate enough that it won't clash with wine.
- 3 pounds unripe grapes
- 1/2 teaspoon citric acid
- Food mill or juicer
- Fine-mesh sieve
- Remove all stems from grapes, weeding out any grapes that are wrinkled or very small.
- Wash grapes thoroughly.
- Put 1/2 teaspoon citric acid in the bottom of your collection vessel.
- Begin juicing grapes, working as quickly as possible. Swirl collection vessel as you go to incorporate citric acid.
- Pour juice through a sieve and collect in a sealed jar without much airspace. Let stand until the sediment finishes settling at the bottom.
- Carefully pour the juice off the top without disturbing the sediment at the bottom. If some of it gets in the bottle, just let it settle and pour it off once more.
- Store bottles in the refrigerator for up to 3 months.