Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Making Filé with Sassafras Leaves

Imagine the world as we know it has ended, or you are stranded in the woods.  You have shot a squirrel and picked some dandelion greens to make a soup.  It is going to be a rather thin and uninteresting soup to be sure.  However, if you know how to make Filé (fee-lay). you will be able to turn that thin soup into something thicker and far more interesting.  All you need to be able to do is recognize a Sassafras Tree.

Filé is a spice made and used primarily by the Cajuns of Southern Louisiana and invented by the Choctaw Indians. It's used as a thickener and flavoring in soups and stews. If you have had Gumbo, you have probably eaten it already. People often think that Filé is a combination of spices due to its interesting flavor.  Surprisingly, it has only one ingredient, dried Sassafras leaves.

The Sassafras tree is fairly easy to recognize.  The leaves on the tree comes in three different varieties.  These shapes include a simple oval, a three-lobed maple leaf shape, and a two-lobed mitten shape.  The Mulberry tree also has these three shapes, however, the Sassafras has smooth margins and no teeth and also has a spicy smell when crushed.  If you pull the leaf off and immediately smell where the leaf is severed, it should have a spicy almost citrous scent.  Sassafras is a medium-sized tree with irregularly furrowed, red-brown bark.

To make Filé, you can pluck branches off and hang to dry in a warm area like a garage or attic.  Your branches will be crispy dry in about a week.  You can also pluck individual leaves off and dehydrate them in a dehydrator or oven.  See how I dehydrate HERE.  Do not dehydrate your leaves in the sun as it will dull the color of the leaves.

Once dry, hand crush the leaves in a bowl.  It will suddenly seem like a much smaller amount at that point.  Fill your mortar 3/4 full and using a pestle, crush into a powder.  It takes about five minutes.

Strain through a fine mesh strainer to remove any large pieces and twigs.


Store in an air tight container away from sunlight.  To use, add several teaspoons to your soup after you have taken the soup away from the heat.  Do not add it while cooking.  Be frugal in your initial use as often people add too much in the beginning.  You can also use it as a condiment for individuals to add to their soup.

As a point of interest, sassafras root and bark are have been sources of the flavoring for root beer in the past. The roots also make a wonderful tea which I drank often as a child.  Native Americans used Sassafras as a blood purifier.  Some locals that I have known use the root in tea to help get over colds and fevers. Herbalists use Sassafras for arthritis, gout and rheumatism.

Parts of the sassafras plant contains safrole, which may be carcinogenic according to the FDA.  In the 1960's, researchers isolated this compound of Sassafras and fed it to rats in ridiculously high concentration (not found in nature) and they developed cancer (go figure, keep in mind that they had not even decided that cigarettes caused cancer at this point so my faith in this determination is fair at best).  You can also find safrole in more common herbs such as black pepper, basil and nutmeg.  However, just to be on the safe side, the leaves of Sassafras do not contain safrole so they are safe for making Filé!

For you locals, there is a Sassafras tree behind Home Depot on Royal Oaks in Franklin, TN.

Shared At:
Homestead Barn Hop
Natural Living Monday
Backyard Farming Connection
Eco-Kids Tuesday
Frugal Days, Sustainable Ways
The HomeAcre Hop


  1. What an interesting post! I'm going to have to check our woods and see if we have an Sassafras trees, I'm wondering if they grow in Vermont? Thank you so much for sharing on The Home Acre Hop, can't wait to see what you share this week! Nancy
    On The Home Front

  2. I love to eat sassafras leaves, the young, tender ones. They have a great flavor and texture and are really good added to a salad. I will also pluck them and eat them if hiking through the woods. Yumm!