Searching for Sassafras

When chef Ken Oringer was dreaming up his panna cotta with fresh berries, he knew he wanted to tweak the dessert’s cool profile with something wild. “Sassafras has a cinnamon anise-like flavor that goes really well with dairy,” claims Oringer. And Eva’s Garden, where he regularly sources herbs and greens, just happened to have some old-growth sassafras. So into the woods Oringer went, with Eva’s farm manager Ben Comeau, to forage for the tree’s aromatic root and leaves—because sassafras isn’t something you find just any day. In fact, it’s taken on the profile of slightly forbidden pleasure.

Sassafras is what used to put the “root” in root beer, and it made it one lively, refreshing drink. Native Americans used its root and leaves medicinally—as an analgesic and antiseptic. (It pulled double duty, supposedly also warding off evil spirits.) And the lemony tasting leaves of the sassafras tree are still steeped in boiling water today to make a folksy tea that some believe cures a host of ills. They also put the bounce in filé powder (an essential element of gumbo).

But sassafras bark contains safrole oil (which, by the way, cinnamon and nutmeg also have, says master forager Russ Cohen, author of Wild Plants I Have Known…and Eaten and a favorite source of information and inspiration for Eva Sommaripa). And in 1960 the Food and Drug Administration determined through experiments that large amounts of safrole oil caused cancer (“when ingested by rats, not humans,” Cohen says). As a result, the FDA banned sassafras from commercial use in mass-produced foods.  

What that means is that you’re no longer going to find sassafras in root beer or those classic root-beer-barrel-shaped candies. Chefs, however, can use it in their cooking (it’s not mass produced, after all), and individuals are free to forage and use it as they please. If you do, however, it’s best to scrape the root bare of its safrole-containing bark, as Oringer did (he used a simple kitchen scouring pad).

Since sassafras is not readily available, we put a twist on Oringer’s recipe and substituted fragrant lemongrass. But, says the chef, licorice root or cinnamon with a bit of star anise would also do the trick.