Monday, May 10, 2010

Strawberries 101: How to Select, Store, and Eat Everyone's Favorite Springtime Fruit

san diego farmers' market strawberries

When my in-laws from Rhode Island were visiting recently, I mentioned that our strawberry season was coming to a close.

My mother-in-law said, "You mean it's starting, right?

"Nope," I said. "California's strawberry season usually starts in January and ends in June."

"But I don't understand. That's when our strawberry season is just starting," she said. 


California is the advanced-gifted child in the classroom of strawberry production. The United States produces about 2 billion pounds of strawberries every year, 90% of which are grown here. Thanks to our temperate climate, we're able to produce strawberries in the wintertime and ship them across the country. That's why people in Massachusetts can buy fresh strawberries at the Stop & Shop in frigid February.

It also means, however, those berries are "grown for production" --  picked ripe, but not at absolute maturity, and "gassed" (treated with a carbon dioxide solution to prevent spoilage) to maintain a 5-7 day shelf life.

In contrast, strawberries "grown for flavor" are vine-ripened; that is, they are not picked until fully ripe. The resulting berry is deep scarlet, sweet, and juicy. If you look inside of a vine-ripened strawberry, you'll see what looks like sugar crystals: they are the strawberry's natural sugars that provide its sweetness. As a result, vine-ripened strawberries have a shorter shelf-life of 2-5 days.

san diego farmers' market raspberries and strawberries

Almost every state in America grows strawberries at some point between May and July, which is when you should eat them. There is nothing quite as pleasing as the flavor of a locally grown vine-ripened strawberry bursting with natural sugar.

Since moving to Southern California a few years ago, I have spoken with many strawberry farmers and have learned some great tips about selecting and storing fresh strawberries. Here's what they have to say.

How to select fresh strawberries:
*Look for bright red berries with a shiny exterior and no bruises. Be sure the berry's "hat" is red too, which means there is no white at the top of the berry.
*Look for fresh, bright green hulls with no trace of mold or mildew.
*Buy large or small strawberries; size does not correlate directly to flavor.
*Check the bottom of the container. If it's wet, then the berries have begun to spoil.
*Ask about pesticides and other farming practices if that is important to you. Since delicate strawberries do not have a protective skin, they are more prone to absorbing pesticides.

How to store fresh strawberries:
*Always try to eat fresh strawberries the day you buy them. Otherwise, refrigerate by placing berries in a paper-towel lined plastic container. They should last 2-5 days.
*Keep berries dry with the green hull intact until you are ready to use them. Remove the hull with a pairing knife.
*To freeze strawberries, remove the hull, rinse, and pat dry. Place on a cookie sheet and freeze. Once frozen, place in Ziploc freezer bags, and enjoy year-round. The consistency will be softer, so they're best used in smoothies, jams, or sauces.

How to eat fresh strawberries:
*Toss them in salads. They pair well with spicy greens like arugula, sharp cheese like goat's cheese, and earthy nuts.
*Add them to toast, oatmeal, or cereal: Add sliced strawberries to toast topped with mascarpone or ricotta cheese.
*Dip fresh strawberries in melted dark chocolate or Nutella for a decadent treat.
*Bake with strawberries: Make cobbler, crisp, shortcake, muffins, scones, pie, cake, or just about anything else you fancy.
*Make smoothies, milkshakes, ice cream, sorbet, or drinks such as margaritas.
*Explore the savory side of strawberries: they are delicious cooked in sauces and salsas and spooned atop meats such as chicken or pork.

Are you ready to eat some strawberries now? Then check out these savory and sweet strawberry recipes:

strawberry muffin rack pink
Fresh Strawberry, Almond, and Coconut Muffins

skinny parfait 1 striped
Skinny Berry Parfaits

seductive strawberry salad
Seductive Strawberry Salad

pork strawberry salsa cut
Pork Tenderloin with Strawberry-Mango Salsa

strawberry rhubarb calzone
Strawberry Rhubarb Calzones

strawberry cardamom crumb cake
Strawberry Cardamom Crumb Cake

Here are some more strawberry dessert recipes you might enjoy:
Strawberry Cupcakes recipe from Milk and Honey Cafe
Roasted Strawberry Scones recipe from The British Larder
Strawberry Shortcake Sliders recipe from Simply Recipes
Strawberry Chocolate Chip Muffins recipe from Gluten-Free Goddess
Learn more about California strawberries: Decadent Strawberries Sweet in Summertime