Megan Saynisch is a freelance writer, cook, gardener and the creator of Brooklynfarmhouse.com.
That first glimpse of strawberries at the market means that summer is finally here. I look forward to their arrival the way some people celebrate baseball's opening day. Once, as a kid, I ate so many strawberries that I got hives. I really like strawberries. When I say "strawberries," I mean those nuggets of red, delicious juiciness found at the farmers' market or a local farm stand — not the giant (flavorless) ones you can find year round at the supermarket. Like most good things, strawberries must be waited for, consumed with biblical gluttony and then mourned as their season ends.
A Brief History
There are native varieties of wild strawberries in both the Old and New Worlds, ranging from South America to Europe to Asia. A member of the Rosaceae family (along with roses, apples and blackberries), strawberries have been cultivated in Europe since the 14th Century, though there is some evidence that Native Americans may have gardened the North American wild variety even earlier (and created one of the first versions of strawberry shortcake, made by mixing them with cornmeal ). The varieties of strawberry commonly grown in the US today were developed in 19th Century England — until hybridization with larger, juicier varieties, earlier cultivated strawberries were tiny, much like wild strawberries and the highly prized fraises des bois variety available today.
For word nerds: there is some etymological debate over the origin of the word "strawberry." Some say the straw- refers to the (supposed) once common practice of mulching strawberry plants with straw; others call that bunk and insist it refers to the strawberry plant's practice of "strewing" (or "straying," both words sounding a lot like "straw") as the plant's tendrils tend to spread if left untended. Yet another proposed origin of the word involves 10th Century Anglo-Saxons — apparently they referred to the fruit as a "hay-berry" because the wild berries ripened during the hay harvest (and of course, "hay" is a synonym for "straw"). Basically, strawberries have been around a long time, so figuring out where the word came from is no easy task for linguists.
- Strawberries are symbols of both the Virgin Mary and Venus (the Roman goddess of love).
- Strawberries were one of Thomas Jefferson’s favorites; he grew the fruit at his Virginia estate, Monticello.
- Unlike any other fruit, strawberry seeds are on the outside (rather than the inside) of the fruit, technically making the strawberry not a berry at all.
- According to the USDA, strawberries are the third most valuable (non-citrus) fruit crop grown in the US, behind grapes and apples.
- Almost all strawberries grown in the US are varieties of Fragaria x ananassa, a Chilean-North American hybrid.
The US leads the world in strawberry cultivation, followed by Turkey (who knew?) and Spain. California is on top of US production of the fruit, as it grows about 80 percent of all American-grown strawberries (and clearly a large proportion of the world’s strawberries, too). Florida and Oregon are also top growers of the fruit, although strawberries are grown in every single US state. Strawberries are labor-intensive to cultivate and are susceptible to a variety of diseases and pests. The seedlings must be planted by hand, and the berries are also still harvested by hand, even in large industrial operations. (This article describes the difficult labor conditions involved in strawberry production, a vast departure from the fruit’s sweet connotations.)
Strawberries rank a super high number 3 (out of 53 ) on the Environmental Working Group's (EWG) Shoppers' Guide to Pesticides in Produce (see our vegetable rule of thumb*). (The EWG recommends buying organic due to the high pesticide load in conventionally grown strawberries.)
Unfortunately, the pesticides used in conventional strawberry production are some of the very worst — including methyl bromide, which sterilizes the soil and acts as an insecticide (and is also used as a fumigant for many foods and spices, and as a weed killer). According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), methyl bromide is categorized as a "powerful ozone depleting substance." It was "phased out" in 2005 in the US's attempt to comply with the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, but the US lobbied for — and won — "exemptions" that include — guess what? — strawberry production, both for seedlings and fruit. In addition to its affects on the ozone layer, methyl bromide is a highly toxic pesticide that can cause neurological, lung and kidney damage, and an increased risk of prostate cancer. (Most of the health-related affects of methyl bromide have been recorded in farm workers and pesticide appliers.) Even organic strawberries' seedlings and seeds have been fumigated with methyl bromide, as this article explains. And it’s not just methyl bromide — a variety of other pesticides are also used in conventional strawberry production. Chemical fertilizers are also are the handmaidens of the monocropped, conventionally grown strawberry, as is heavy water usage.
The environmental and health-related impacts of conventional strawberry growing is high, so if you are concerned with these issues, look for locally-grown strawberries and ask your local farmer about his or her production methods.
Although modern strawberry breeding techniques have extended strawberry season dramatically (especially conventionally-grown berries), in much of the country, locally grown strawberries are available only from the end of Spring through mid-to-late Summer.
Strawberries are high in Vitamin C, fiber and manganese. The berries are also a fairly good source of folate and potassium, and are low in calories.
What to Look For
Look for glossy fruit without visible bruised, mushy or moldy spots. Strawberries range in size from the teeny tiny wild-like, or alpine, varieties, to the fairly enormous Tri-Star type. The berries start out white on the plant, so look for strawberries that are deeply red colored without traces of white at the stem. (But note that there are strawberry cultivars bred to be white, though these types are uncommon.)
What To Do with It
Strawberries are a versatile fruit and perform well under a multitude of cooking methods — they can be roasted (try tossing with a tiny bit of sugar, roasting just until caramelized, then drizzled with good balsamic vinegar), stewed, tucked into a pie, made into jam (see below), pickled (!), churned into ice cream or frozen into an icy sorbet. But strawberries really shine when eaten raw, either completely unadorned, or sliced and tossed with a bit of sugar, orange juice, red wine or balsamic vinegar. Tossing a fruit with sugar and a bit of acidic liquid ("macerating" the fruit) draws out the delicious juices, enhances the flavor and makes a natural "sauce" for topping shortcakes or ice cream. Other classic flavor pairings for strawberries include vanilla, black pepper, rhubarb, other berries, cream (or buttermilk) and, of course, chocolate. If you feel adventurous, try sliced strawberries macerated in a bit of orange juice and sugar (and maybe a splash of rum?), then tossed with orange zest and just a tiny pinch of ground cardamom.
Fresh strawberries deteriorate fairly quickly after purchase — the culprit primarily being mold. You can keep strawberries fresher by waiting to wash them until just before eating, and by storing them in the refrigerator in a paper-towel lined basket or bowl.
When I bring fresh strawberries home from the market, I inspect each fruit in the basket and immediately discard any that are mushy or moldy, as this mold tends to spread pretty quickly and can ruin an entire basket of berries. Also, although generally having a uni-function tool in the kitchen is a waste of space, I love my strawberry huller, as it saves more of each berry — rather than having to cut off the top of the strawberry, it actually "cores" the berry and removes the remnants of the stem in one motion ("hulling").
Stretching Your Fresh Food Dollar Though Preservation
Strawberries are a natural for long-term preservation. They can be made into (shelf-stable) jam or fruit leather, and they freeze beautifully, either sliced or whole. To freeze fresh whole strawberries, wash well, hull and pat dry, then place on a cookie sheet in a freezer for at least 8 hours (overnight is easier). When the berries are frozen solid, transfer to a zip-top bag and store in the freezer.
Unlike other jam recipes, refrigerator jams don’t require canning equipment or techniques. The sugar and acid in the jam preserves the fruit, although refrigerator jam keeps for far less time than classic strawberry preserves — only about 2 weeks in the refrigerator. This jam will also be a bit looser than regular strawberry jam, as there is no pectin (a thickening agent commonly used in canning) involved. Adjusting the amount of sugar will also affect the looseness of the jam (more sugar equals less loose).
Makes about 1 1/2 pints.
Quick Refrigerator Strawberry Jam
1 quart ripe, organic strawberries, hulled and sliced
3/4 to 1 cup raw organic sugar (or substitute regular granulated sugar), depending on the sweetness of the berries
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1. Place a small plate in the freezer.
2. Combine the strawberries, sugar and lemon juice in a small saucepan over medium heat.
3. Bring the strawberry mixture to a rolling boil, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon and mashing the strawberries slightly (I used a potato masher for this).
4. Turn down the heat to medium-low and simmer for approximately 10 minutes.
5. Put about a teaspoon of the jam mixture on the cold plate and swirl the plate around. If the jam runs, cook for 2-5 minutes longer and repeat the process. (The jam should firm up when it hits the cold plate and should no longer run.)
6. Transfer to clean glass jars and cool. When completely cool, cover and refrigerate.
(* Fruit and vegetable rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG’s guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them — agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry’s tendency toward large monocrops.)
Megan Saynisch is a cook, gardener, culinary anthropologist and writer living in Brooklyn with her husband and young son. A graduate of the French Culinary Institute, she is the creator of the blog Brooklynfarmhouse.com.