SASSAFRAS (Sassafras albidum)


 An interesting tree.

You'll find 3 different shaped leaves on the same  tree- an oval leaf, a mitten, and a three-lobed leaf. 

A child on one of my foraging walks once told me that were really 4 different shapes - there's a left mitten and a right mitten.  And he was right!

Leaf edges of sassafras are smooth, no teeth.

Crush a leaf and you'll learn the distinctive scent of sassafras.  The whole tree is quite fragrant.

Someone told me the leaves smell like Fruit Loops. I don't know about that comparison, but it is a nice smell!

Culinary uses and the safety debate


OK, so there’s this whole debate over the safety of eating / drinking sassafras.

Sassafras is a traditional ingredient in real root beer.   The roots, leaves and twigs of the sassafras tree have been consumed for a very long time. 

But the plant contains a chemical called safrole. 

The FDA banned safrole in 1979 after studies showed that rats fed large amounts of the stuff developed cancer.

And actually, there is a lot of debate over exactly why safrole / sassafras was banned. 

Some say it really has to do with the fact that safrole is also used to make the street drug MDMA (Ecstasy).

Sassafras leaves have barely any safrole. It is almost undetectable in the leaves.

Ever hear of file (fee-lay) gumbo?

File powder is made from dried sassafras leaves.  File powder is still legally sold, and is the key ingredient in file gumbo. The leaves are “generally recognized as safe,” per the FDA. 

Sassafras oil, bark and root have concentrated amounts of safrole.  I would avoid these entirely.

Read up on sassafras. It’s an interesting plant with a lot of culinary history.

And if you make some file gumbo from your dried sassafras leaves, invite me over, ok?

Young sassafras leaves


File powder is best made from young sassafras leaves.  

Dry the leaves.  Then grind them into a powder using a  coffee or spice grinder.

You now have your own file powder to add flavor and thickening to a soup or stew!

When using, add it at  the end of cooking after the heat is turned off.  If you boil file powder you will get a stringy mess!