Anyone who has ever read "Blueberries for Sal" knows the truth. There are few things more tempting - to man or beast - than ripe summer berries eaten still warm from the sun. While not many eaters have access to rambling countryside brambles (with or without pilfering bears), the lucky ones among us know that a local U-pick offers the best chance for fresh-from-the-field flavor. Fully ripened berries are delicious, but you have to act fast - they are as fragile as a Victorian actress and seem to swoon the minute they are picked.
Some eaters believe that long shelf life is a sign of freshness, but more often than not the opposite is true. When I was running a farmers' market, a shopper complained to me that although she loved the local berries, they didn't stay "fresh" in her refrigerator for two weeks like those she bought at the big box store. Two weeks? Sort of strains the meaning of the word "fresh," if you ask me. Eaters often think of fresh food as food that shines, impervious to age for any length of time. But such items are frequently harvested unripe so that they are sturdy enough to withstand the rigors of travel and blasted with fumigants to last for as long as possible on the shelf. Truly fresh foods that are picked when they are ripe and ready and brought directly to market often do so with the clock running - there are no smoke and mirrors in place to make them look better than they are and they show their age. There's nothing sadder than a good berry gone bad. Here's how to get the most out of your berries before time runs out.
Finding Good Fruit
When shopping for fresh berries, of course you don't want any that are growing beards. Literally, avoid fruit that is beginning to fur up with mold or that is starting to weep through the bottom of the container. But do search out fruits that are soft and yielding - berries are not known for their crunch. Those that are allowed to ripen on the plant are the tastiest.
Do not expect uniformity here. Trust that Mother Nature has her priorities straight and is optimizing for flavor over size consistency. Berries even of the same variety grown on the same bush at the same time will vary in size a great deal. I know that our eyes have all been trained to look for iconic shapes and record-breaking size but berries are not body builders. Let them have their lumps and bumps, adore the tiny with the sizable. These are the prize-winners.
Using it Up
When you get your berries home, you need to come up with a plan. If, like me, you share your home with kids and others who eagerly anticipate berry season and will wood chip through your supply in short order - well, that might be the best plan of all. But here is how you can buy yourself a little time to taste, not waste those berries:
Refrigeration helps prolong the shelf life of berries a bit, particularly if you cover them to keep in their moisture. Some use plastic, but I find using a bowl to be a better alternative. Simply line a bowl with a layer of paper towel to absorb any weeping, add the berries and slip a plate over the top of the bowl. Enjoy them within a day or two.
For longer storage some eaters recommend giving berries a rinse in a vinegar wash. The acid reportedly helps to destroy contaminating pathogens. Use a weak mixture of one part vinegar to eight parts water (that's two tablespoons vinegar to one cup water) to create a berry bath. Add the fruit and let it soak for a minute or two then rinse and towel dry before storing as outlined above.
If you are not going to use your berries in short order, you can freeze them. The best way to do it is to freeze them individually so they don't all freeze together in a big berry cube. Wash and dry your berries (no need to use a vinegar wash here as the freezer will stop any decomposition). Arrange them in a single layer on a rimmed cookie sheet and pop the sheet into the freezer. When the fruit is completely frozen, you can transfer it to sealable containers and return to the freezer. The berries will stay wonderfully individually frozen so you can remove just the amount you need for your recipe.
There are also lots of ways to use up berries that are starting to fade. Try some of these preserving recipes to stop Father Time in his tracks:
- Make jam
- Infuse into vinegar shrubs
- Infuse into flavored cordials
- Simmer into fruit ketchup
- Dry into fruit leather
- Make berry coulis
- Make berry gastrique
Oh, how I love the intersection of sweet and savory. Like chili and chocolate and salt and caramel, pickle and berry were meant to be together. Yes, I use a sweet brine here, but it is a brine nonetheless, taken further over the savory fifty yard line by the addition of herbs and spices. Warm spices such as cinnamon, star anise and/or cloves would be a winning addition, as would fresh herbs such as rosemary, thyme or mint. Or you could turn up the summer heat by adding sliced or dried chilies to your brine. Any kind of berries will work - blueberries, strawberries or raspberries are all great. Softer berries may breakdown from the heat of the brine, but that's ok - it will just make more of a spread than a pickle you can nibble on. Pickled berries are great on sandwiches or served as a condiment served with roasted meats or vegetables or on a cheese platter - goat cheese is heavenly as is grilled Halloumi.
2 cups of berries
1 cup of apple cider vinegar
2-4 tablespoons sugar (depending on your taste)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Pickle flavorings such as half a cinnamon stick, half a star anise, 2 cloves or any combination; or a sprig of rosemary and/or thyme; or several mint leaves; or a sliced fresh jalapeno or a small dried chili such as a Chipotle pepper or a 1 inch piece of Ancho chile.
Place berries in a heat-proof jar, such as a canning jar. Bring the vinegar, 1/2 cup of water, the sugar and salt to a boil for one to two minutes to dissolve the crystals. Add the flavorings of your choice and simmer for 1-2 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly. Using tongs, pluck your flavorings out of the brine and add to the berries. Pour the hot brine over the berries and swirl to remove any large air bubbles. Cool to room temperature, cover and refrigerate for at least one day and up to one week. Makes 1 pint of pickled berries.