Berries Galore!

Berry season is here! Whether you buy them from the store, pay to pick them from farms, gather them from wild/feral plants, or do a bit of all three, chances are that they're in abundance. Now is the time to hoard as many as possible!

You may very well be wondering what the point is of amassing large quantities of berries, when you can only eat so many in one sitting and they have a limited shelf life. Well, below are recommendations on how to cook, bake, and preserve berries.

 

Know Your Berry

 Juneberries approaching ripeness

Juneberries approaching ripeness

Here in the Twin Cities, the wild fruits juneberries (Amelanchier spp.) and mulberries (Morus spp.) are just reaching ripeness. In the farmer's markets, strawberries are being sold by the truckload. I've spied sour cherries approaching harvest time in front yards. Regardless of what berries are available to you right now, it's important to know their basic characteristics.

 Mulberries fattening on the branch

Mulberries fattening on the branch

Moisture- Some berries are very wet (like mulberries), while others are very dry (like bearberries Arctostaphylos uva-ursi.) It's important to be familiar with the moisture content, as it makes a big difference in cooking and baking. Wet berries are harder to bake with, as the moisture leaks into the dough or batter, making it soggy. However, when extracting juice for jelly, sauces, or just to drink, obviously a wetter berry is ideal. Think about the needs of the recipe when deciding whether a specific berry is appropriate.

Sweetness- Berries come in a wide range of sweetness as well. Some require no sweetener at all, while others need a considerable amount to become palatable. Just think of the difference between sweet cherries and cranberries! It's good practice to sample the berries and get an idea of how much sweetener they will need to become tasty.

Flavor- Sweetness is a component of flavor, but doesn't make it up entirely. Berries can be sour, astringent, bitter, tannic, starchy, or acidic. Additionally, there are those secondary compounds that are so hard to describe: blueberry-like flavor, grape-like flavor, etc. What does the flavor go well with? Does it need to be complemented with another food, herb, or spice? Can it go sweet, savory, or either? These are important things to keep in mind when cooking or baking with berries.

Texture- Texture includes the mouthfeel of the pulp, skin, and seeds. Whether a certain texture is desirable is largely a subjective matter. Some people like all their berries strained to remove skin and seeds, while other people only strain certain species. Some berries, like cherries, need to be pitted before cooking or baking. Furthermore, some recipes require a totally smooth texture, while in others it's okay to keep the extra bulk. Keep texture in mind when preparing berries for a recipe.

 

Cooking and Baking with Berries

Berries lend themselves well to many different dishes and baked goods. Below are some general ideas, as well as a couple recipes.

 maria picking juneberries in minneapolis

maria picking juneberries in minneapolis

Sauces

Berry sauce is typically made with liquid sweeteners. I like using honey or maple syrup. The general recipe calls for equal parts berry to sweetener. Place the sweetener in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Add berries. Reduce heat and simmer until berries are softened, about 2 to 5 minutes. If desired, mash or blend the berries into the sweetener; however, the sauce is also delicious with whole berries. Serve over waffles, pancakes, french toast, ice cream, or whatever you like!

For a thicker sauce, bring maple syrup to a boil and reduce the volume by half. Keep a close eye on it, so it doesn't boil over! Then add berries and proceed as usual. Alternately, sprinkle in some cornstarch or arrowroot powder and stir. 

You can also alter this basic recipe by adding herbs and/or spices. Blackberry-thyme sauce? Yes, please!

Macerated Berries

Macerated berries are similar to berry sauce, except you use solid sugar and you don't cook the berries. Dry sugar draws moisture from the berries, producing a sweet juicy syrup. For this recipe to work, you need to use juicy types of berries, such as mulberries, blueberries, raspberries, etc. Simply mix 8 part berries to 1 part sugar (for example 4 cups berries and 1/2 cup sugar.) Mash the berries and sugar together if desired, but it will work fine if left whole. Let sit at room temperature for 1-2 hours, stirring occasionally. Serve over waffles, french toast, ice cream, etc.

You can slightly alter this recipe to make a soda base. Mash berries together with sugar as directed above. Refrigerate for about 8 hours or overnight. Strain the mixture through fine wire mesh, or through a food mill with a fine berry screen. The juice and pulp should strain through, leaving the seeds and skins behind. Mix this thick juice with sparkling water to make your own soda, or use it in a cocktail!

Baked Goods

As you probably know, berries are delicious in pie, scones, waffles/pancakes, muffins, cakes, crisps/cobblers/fools. There are countless recipes for berry baked goods online and in books. If substituting a different variety, just keep in mind the characteristics listed above under "Know Your Berry." Below are two general recipes that work well with most berries.

Berry Waffles

 Juneberry waffle

Juneberry waffle

Berry waffles are a classic! Blueberries, juneberries, strawberries, and raspberries all make mouth-watering additions. I haven't tried mulberries, because I fear they would make the batter too wet. If you want to try them, I would recommend partially dehydrating them in the oven first. (Hopefully I can experiment with this soon!)

Makes about 5 waffles.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 Tbsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 cups milk 
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1/3 cup (5 1/3 Tbsp) melted butter 
  • 2 egg whites, stiffly beaten
  • 2 cups fresh berries, washed and dried

Directions

  1. Whisk dry ingredients together in a large bowl.
  2. Mix milk and egg yolks, blend into dry ingredients. Don't over-mix the batter; it's better to have it a bit lumpy than to beat out all the air and develop the gluten in the flour.
  3. Stir in melted butter.
  4. The steps above can be done by hand or with an electric mixer, but be sure to complete the next steps by hand. Gently fold in the egg whites. Again, don't over-mix the batter! 
  5. Gently fold in berries.
  6. Follow manufacturer's instructions for preparing waffles.

 

Berry Crisp

This is the general crisp recipe I use for just about everything. It is all that a crisp should be-- sweet, fruity, crumbly, and delicious! The cornstarch used in the filling helps absorb moisture coming out of the berry, keeping the bottom crispy and yummy!

Serves eight.

Mix for crumbs:

  • ¾ cup flour
  • ¾ cup oats
  • ¾ cup brown sugar
  • ½ cup butter, chilled and cut into chunks
  • 1 tsp cinnamon (optional)

Filling:

  • 4 cups berries
  • 1/4 - 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 Tbl cornstarch
  • 1 tsp vanilla (optional)

 Directions

  1. In a large bowl, mix together all crumb ingredients except butter. Use a pastry cutter, two butterknives, or your fingers to cut in the butter. Process until crumbly, with pea-sized butter chunks.

  2. Combine filling ingredients in a separate large bowl. The amount of sugar you will add depends upon how sweet the berry is, and how sweet you like your desserts. I prefer 1/4 cup sugar for sweet berries such as juneberries and blueberries, but I also don't like my food very sugary.

  3. Press half of crumb mix into 8" x 8" pan. Pour berry mixture over it. Top with remaining crumbs. The berry mixture will get very bubbly while cooking, so make sure the pan is deep enough to give plenty of headroom!

  4. Bake at 350 degrees for 50-60 minutes, until brown on top. Cool before serving.

 

Preserving Berries

There are many ways to save berries for future enjoyment. Canning, freezing, drying, and infusing all work well with berries. And they make great gifts too!

Canning

Canning berries is relatively easy. Due to the high acid content of most berries, they only require a water bath canning method, versus the more complicated pressure canning. Berries can be canned whole, as a syrup, jam, or jelly. Describing the whole canning method is beyond the scope of this post, but I recommend checking your local university extension for reliable information.

Freezing

Berries are very simple to freeze. First, gently rinse by placing berries in a colander and dipping them in cold water. Drain well, and pat dry on towels. Arrange them in a single layer on a baking tray, and place the tray in the freezer. Allow to freeze 8 hours or overnight. Then move the frozen berries into freezer bags, and label with the contents and date. Freezing them on a tray first makes sure that they don't clump together in the freezer, making them easier to measure out. However, if you lack the freezer space to do so, you can put them straight into bags. You might just have to use a knife to hack them apart!

I prefer freezing my berries without sugar. However, sugar is supposed to help preserve the flavor and color. After rinsing the berries, gently toss with a small amount of sugar. (One quart berries only needs around 1/2 cup sugar.) Then freeze as directed above.

Drying

Drying berries whole can be quite challenging due to the high water content. Furthermore, some berries have seeds or skin that should be removed before dehydrating. Thankfully, there's an easy answer to both these obstacles: fruit leather!

 Picking chokecherries in michigan

Picking chokecherries in michigan

Easy Fruit Leather

Ingredients

  • Fresh fruit, washed and dried
  • Honey or sugar, to taste (optional)

Instructions

Puree fruit in a food processor. If you like, you can run the puree through a food mill to remove the seeds and skin. If you don’t have a food processor, you can mash the fruit with a potato masher. Stir in sweetener, if desired. Keep in mind that the flavor concentrates as it dehydrates, so a little bit goes a long way! If the fruit is very juicy (such as mulberries are), it should be simmered to remove some liquid before dehydrating.

To dehydrate, pour your puree into a flat pan to about 1/8 thickness. There are several options for drying the fruit:

  • Use a food dehydrator
  • Put it in your oven at the lowest temperature. Leave the door open a crack to allow some air circulation.
  • Stick in the back of a south-facing car on a sunny day.
  • If the weather is hot and dry, leave it outside. Be sure to put a screen or cheesecloth over it to keep bugs away.

Regardless of what method you choose, dehydrating the fruit will take several hours. When the puree is hard to the touch on top but soft beneath, cut it into strips and flip it over. The fruit leather is ready when it’s slightly sticky to the touch on both sides. Cut into rectangles and store in an airtight container in a cool, dry location.

**Note: Typically you want to avoid applying heat and sunlight when dehydrating food or herbs, because it destroys the delicate flavors and compounds. Low humidity and high ventilation are ideal for drying. While I never use heat or sunlight when drying herbs, I've found it's necessary for berries due to their high moisture content. If you live in a very dry climate, dehydrating fruit leather may be possible without heat or sun. Otherwise, I recommend following the instructions above to avoid spoilage.

 

Infusions

Berries can be infused into a variety of mediums with excellent results. Try the following methods to preserve essence of berry well past season! 

Sweeteners- Sugar, honey, and maple syrup are delicious infused with herbs, spices, flowers, and fruits. The key to success here is making sure that the items being put in the sugar aren't too wet. If you put fresh berries into sugar, the moisture will make it clumpy and difficult to work with. If it's a very wet berry, the sugar may even mold. Molding is even more of a concern with honey and syrup. Therefore, only add dried berries to sweeteners. (Small pieces of fruit leather work fine too!) Generally, you want one part dried berry to four parts sweetener. Simply mix the ingredients together, spoon or pour into a sterilized glass jar, make sure that the dried berries are completely covered by the sweetener, and screw on the sterilized lid. Stick a label on the jar with the contents and date. Let sit for one to three weeks. Sugar and honey can be placed in a cool, dark place; but maple syrup should be kept in the fridge. Periodically taste the sweetener to see if the infused flavor is strong enough. When it's ready, strain the pieces out or use as is. These sweeteners are excellent in baked goods; in drinks like smoothies, tea, coffee, and cocktails; or used as toppings for waffles, ice cream, yogurt, etc. The infused sweetener will hold its flavor nicely for several months (if you can keep it around for that long!)

Vinegar- Due to its high acid content, vinegar functions as an amazing preservative. When infusing berries, it is recommended to use white wine vinegar for the flavor. However, apple cider vinegar will suffice as a budget version. To start, gently wash and dry your berries. Then sort through them and pick out any bad ones. You will need equal parts clean, dry berries to vinegar. Place the berries in a sterilized glass jar. If desired, gently mash the berries with a wooden spoon or fork. This will expedite the infusion process, but it's not really necessary. Then pour in the vinegar. Make sure that it completely covers the berries. Screw on the sterilized lid and store in a cool, dark place. Add a label with the contents of the jar and the date. Let sit two to four weeks, tasting periodically to test the flavor. When it's ready, strain into another sterilized glass jar and put a new label on it. Use in salad dressings, marinades, sauces, and cocktails. For best flavor, use within 6 to 12 months.

*Note: if using a metal lid, make sure to put plastic wrap or wax paper between the lid and the jar. Otherwise the acid from the vinegar will corrode the metal.

Alcohol- You've probably heard of infusing herbs in hard alcohol to make tinctures, but did you know that alcohol is an excellent carrier for fruit as well? It's true! To make berry-infused booze, start with a hard alcohol with a neutral taste, such as vodka. Make sure it's 80-to-100-proof, or 40% to 50%. The high alcohol content is necessary for its preservation effects. The process is essentially the same as infusing vinegar, except you're using alcohol as the medium. To start, gently wash and dry your berries. Then sort through them and pick out any bad ones. You will need equal parts clean, dry berries to alcohol. Place the berries in a sterilized glass jar. If desired, gently mash the berries with a wooden spoon or fork. This will expedite the infusion process, but it's not really necessary. Then pour in the alcohol. Make sure that it completely covers the berries. Screw on the sterilized lid and store in a cool, dark place. Add a label with the contents of the jar and the date. Let sit three to seven days, tasting periodically to test the flavor. When it's ready, strain into another sterilized glass jar and put a new label on it. Use in cocktails, sauces, and marinades. For best flavor, use within 6 to 12 months.

 

Final Thoughts

With so many ways to work with berries, why wait? The season doesn't last forever, so get your hands on them while you can!