June in the North East not only means a return of flip flops, the whirling of air conditioning units, dinners outdoors, but most importantly - strawberries. The joy that a basket of ruby red farm picked berries brings to the mouth is immeasurable. Once you start buying them locally, you start to rethink everything you once believed about berries...
Six mis-truths about berries...
1. Big ones are juicier. It is incredibly satisfying to hang onto the green leaves and bite into a monster strawberry, but jumbo berries usually have less flavor, juice and nutrients than smaller ones. They tend to have a lower skin to water ratio and it's the skin where much of the nutrients congregate. Tiny wild blueberries, for example, are far more flavorful than larger ones and can be bought frozen year round.
2.The longer they keep, the "fresher" they were to start. If a berry keeps more than 3 or 4 days, it was likely picked well before it was ripe and may have been bred for its lower water content, firmer flesh and longer shelf life. In other words, not the kind of berry that was grown on a smaller scale farm and sold at a farmers market. The berry that lasts only 1 or 2 days was likely picked yesterday, has greater flavor and higher nutritional value. (Blueberries will last a little longer though than say strawberries .)
3. Color does not vary greatly. There's actually a huge range, especially when you consider farmers markets berries when they're in season. Not only are darker berries usually sweeter, they have more antioxidants than paler berries.
4.You can't tell if it's juicy until you bite into it. If you can't see juice when you buy it, you won't taste it when you eat it. Look for signs of juice in the carton (especially with blackberries and raspberries). Low juice berries are an indicator that the berry was bred for handling and a long shelf life.
5. Symmetrical berries are a sign of high quality. Big, uniform berries are grown for high volume, lower spoilage and to ensure a consistent and enticing look in the plastic package. Berries grown on smaller farms can be quite mutant looking but usually more flavorful than "perfect" large-scale-production berries.
6.Organic is always best. Though pesticide-free, many organic berry brands sold in stores are grown to withstand long-distance travel and an extended lay-over in a warehouse. (Given their higher production cost, there is even greater economic loss should they spoil rapidly.) The ideal body type for this job? Big and strong. If it's a choice between organic from a huge conglomerate and non-organic from a local farmer, I would go for the local. In fact, even if the farm has not been certified organic, they may still practice pesticide-free farming, so be sure to ask.
A couple tips for prolonging berries once you bring them home: 1) Don't wash them until just before eating as moisture facilitates the growth of mold; 2) If they're packed tightly in their box they'll spoil faster, so transfer them to a container with more space to slow down the spoiling; 3) Though they'll have far more flavor at room temperature, if you won't be eating them for a day or so, store them in the fridge. When you take them out, run very warm water over them to quickly bring out the flavor.
Any berry tips to share? Your favorite way to eat seasonal berries?
Michelle Madden is the creator of the award-nominated food blog, The Sweet Beet (nominations include a Webby and Saveur.com's top food blog). On her funny, engaging but highly informative blog, she shares tips and tricks for eating healthy as well as offering recipes that nourish and delight. You can find her at www.thesweetbeet.com or on Facebook