Verjuice is a gently acidic ingredient that’s often used in place of vinegar or lemon juice. The name comes from the French verjus or vert jus – which literally translates as ‘green juice’. It’s made from the juice of unripe and unfermented grapes, which have a bright, sour flavour.
The first use for verjuice that springs to mind is probably salad dressings. But you’d be surprised at how much more you can do with the soft acidity of verjuice. Read on to find out more about the history of verjuice and verjus. Then discover recipes and extra tips that show some of the ways you can use this almost endlessly versatile ingredient.
Where Does Verjuice Come From?
Verjuice is the pressed juice of unripe and unfermented grapes. In France it’s known as verjus or vert jus, and in Italy you’ll see it as agresto. You’ll also find the ingredient in Spain as agraz, in Lebanon as hosrum and in Iran as abghooreh.
Whichever name you know it by, verjuice has long been a by-product of wine making. And, despite its recent popularity, verjuice is not a new ingredient. In fact, the ingredient acresta is mentioned in Roman texts alongside wine as far back as 71AD – notice the similarity to the modern Italian agresto. That's right, verjuice has been used in cooking since ancient times.
To make verjus, small, unripe grapes were picked before the main harvest to ‘thin the crop’ and ensure a more consistent quality across the grapes that were left. Sometimes they were picked after the rest of the grapes were harvested for wine. Either way, making verjus uses up the smaller grapes that can’t be used to make wine and ensures that nothing is wasted.
As might be expected, verjus/verjuice was widely used as an ingredient in European grape growing regions, particularly in Spain, Italy and France.
In cooking, verjus is known as an ‘acidulant’ – something that adds sharpness, sourness or bite to dishes. Dishes that miss out on a sour or sharp component can taste flat and lacking. So, a splash of something like verjus can instantly brighten the flavours and enliven the palate.
The height of verjuice’s popularity was in the late medieval period, between the 13th and 15th centuries. Cooks of the time used it with everything from chicken to spiced pork, soups and even sweet tarts. But the introduction of tomatoes and lemons to Europe in the 16th century caused verjus to almost disappear from our kitchens as cooks experimented with the new, exotic ingredients. Then, 500 years or so later, someone came along and brought it back.
Maggie Beer is a world-famous Australian cook and restaurateur. However, she started life in the Barossa Valley with her husband Colin as a vigneron, or wine maker. In 1984, Maggie and Colin found themselves facing a poor harvest of Rhine Riesling grapes. Maggie started researching ways to save the grapes, and she came across verjus in some old European cookbooks.
With her innate love of sour flavours, Maggie Beer decided that making her own verjus was the way to go. It was a great success, and Maggie Beer’s verjuice was born! She became the first person ever to produce verjuice on a commercial scale, and she still makes it today at her vineyard in the Barossa Valley.
In 2001, Maggie Beer released her first verjuice cookbook, Cooking with Verjuice. She is almost solely responsible for catapulting verjuice back into the global consciousness and giving it the recognition it deserves. Maggie Beer says that verjuice "lifts the palate, and gives a beautiful piquancy without overtaking any of the flavours you are cooking with".
Verjuice in Cooking
In the introduction to her 2012 book, Maggie’s Verjuice Cookbook, Maggie confesses that she "just can't help [herself] when it comes to verjuice! … use it in place of lemon juice or vinegar to bring the gentlest lift of flavour to everything - from grilled vegetables, meat or fish, pastas, risottos, salads… to delicate custards, old-fashioned puddings and decadent tarts."
Maggie Beer’s verjuice is sweet and floral, with a very gentle acidity. It’s perfect when lemon juice or vinegar might be too sharp in a recipe. Verjuice has often been overlooked in British kitchens – though this is slowly changing – but it’s still used in European dishes such as such as Alhada Tolosenca. This is a sauce from Languedoc made with ground walnuts, garlic, oil and a splash of verjuice.
Verjuice is a fantastic ingredient for deglazing pans after roasting meat or vegetables, for introducing a little acidity to cut through rich sauces, or even for poaching fruit. Some of Maggie Beer’s favourite ways to use verjuice are with mushrooms, rabbit and fresh fish. Simply pan fry any of them with a little butter and finish with a splash of verjuice.
Looking for the secret to the perfect roast chicken? Grab a bottle of verjuice! Mix a little with olive oil, salt & pepper and massage into the chicken before roasting. Then use more verjuice to baste the chicken once or twice during cooking. Not only does it help to keep the chicken lovely and moist, but it also lifts and boosts the chicken's flavour.
If you sometimes find lemon juice too harsh, try using verjuice instead. Use in a classic vinaigrette, for example, or even in homemade mayonnaise. Verjuice is also great drizzled over avocado and raw fennel, artichokes and aubergine – it keeps the flavours lovely and vibrant and helps to prevent discolouration as well.
Maggie Beer’s verjuice is the best we’ve tried here at Sous Chef. The balance between sweet and sour is unrivalled. The following recipes were kindly provided by Maggie herself, and we recommend using Maggie Beer’s verjuice to get the best results.
By this point you’re surely keen to get cooking! The following recipes only scratch the surface of how versatile verjuice is; before long you’ll be finding many more ways to use it in your cooking.
Homemade hollandaise is a luxurious thing. Maggie Beer’s version uses browned butter for a slight nuttiness, and verjuice in place of lemon juice. The verjuice turns this classic sauce into a new discovery – it bursts with complex layers of sweet, sour and ever so slightly floral flavours that simple lemon juice can’t compete with.
Spoon generously over eggs benedict, asparagus, or wilted cavolo nero on toasted slices of baguette. You may never make a classic hollandaise again…
These light, refreshing jellies are fabulous starters. They look rather special, too! The tarragon-infused verjuice jelly is fruity, gently herbal and mildly sour – the ideal accompaniment to creamy avocado. Serve each jelly alone, with a small salad, or even with smoked salmon.
In this comforting recipe, Maggie uses verjuice to deglaze the roasting pan towards the end of cooking. It really wakes up the pumpkin’s flavour and gives each chunk a temptingly glossy sheen. Serve as a hearty starter or light lunch with some creamy goats’ cheese and perhaps a bit of salad.
Use the same verjuice-deglazing method with almost any roasted root vegetable – carrots, parsnips and beetroot are ideal, and make a wonderfully wintry salad with mixed leaves or buckwheat.
How Else Can I Use Verjuice?
You can think of verjuice like unfermented wine. So, while you're still familiarising yourself with it, use verjuice in cooking wherever you might use white wine. In risottos, for example, or in creamy sauces for chicken, fish and mushrooms. This affinity with wine also means that dishes cooked with verjuice are easy to pair with wine. The flavours don't clash, not even with red wine, so you can pull off the perfect wine pairings with ease.
The natural sweetness in verjuice also lends itself well to desserts. Verjuice and orchard fruits, like pears, apples and peaches, go particularly well together. Use verjuice to poach pears, or reduce the verjuice to a syrupy consistency and drizzle over cakes or apple tarts. Add sugar for extra sweetness, or use your favourite spices to infuse the verjuice while it reduces.
How will you use verjuice? Do you already have a favourite verjuice recipe? Let us know in the comments!