Local berry season is easy to look forward to. But since most types of berries are only ripe for the picking for a few weeks, it's also incredibly easy to miss. Luckily, with just a bit of planning, you can not only notice berry season but totally own it—and extend its singular pleasures all year long. Here's how.
1. Learn when your local season begins
Whether you want to pick your own or buy at the farmers' market, start by learning when your local farms expect to have strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries (usually in that order) ready for harvest. Check Pick Your Own for a list of pick-your-own farms in your area, with links to farm websites and phone numbers. Chances are, your local farmers are very friendly, so don't hesitate to call and ask questions.
2. Go pesticide-free when possible
Whether or not you're a devotee of organically grown foods in general, berries are a good place to pay attention to the source of your food and the farming practices used. They're too fragile to scrub and don't have a skin to peel. And industrially grown conventional strawberries have been the topic of intense debate this past year due to the use of methyl iodide as a pesticide. Certified organic berries are by no means the only option—most small, local farms use responsible practices and simply don't have the funds to become certified. But don't be shy about asking farmers how they grow their berries and why.
3. Prep and store properly
Store fresh berries in shallow, breathable containers on the counter for best taste and texture. You'll get a few more days out of them if you keep them in the fridge, but they'll lose the succulence that makes just-picked berries so special. Don't wash berries until right before you're ready to use them. Then gently rinse and drain in a colander or pat dry with paper towels.
4. Stock the fridge
When you're expecting an influx of berries, stock the fridge with fresh ingredients that will help you make versatile use of them. Bitter spring greens such as dandelions and watercress pair beautifully with berries in an easy salad. A lemon and a supply of fresh ice cubes will transform berries into a refreshing agua fresca. Yogurt and fresh cheeses such as ricotta and mascarpone pair beautifully with many berry varieties. Berries have never met a cup of cream, a stick of butter, or a sprig of mint they didn't like. Nor, to be perfectly frank, have I ever heard them turn down a crisp, chilled glass of bubbly.
5. Stock the pantry
Having a few key pantry staples on hand will get you and your berries through the summer in style. Think almonds, flour, oats, vanilla beans, brown sugar, balsamic vinegar, and a small bottle of a liqueur such as Framboise or Grand Marnier.
6. Browse our berry recipes
7. Conserve for the short term
To breathe an extra week of life into fragile, fresh berries, take a cue from Alice Waters. Place berries in a pot with a few tablespoons of sugar and heat gently until they start to release their juices. Cool, then store in an airtight container in the fridge for a week. They're great on yogurt, oatmeal, or a spoon.
Berries freeze well for months. You can use them straight from the freezer in pies and other baked goods, pancakes, smoothies, sauces, and drinks, to name a few options you'll be glad to have in the dead of winter. Just wash berries (and hull strawberries) and let dry thoroughly. Then spread them out on a parchment-lined baking sheet in the freezer and freeze until solid. Transfer to an airtight container or bag, and they'll be there when you need them.
9. Can it
From jams to pie fillings to syrups and beyond, the USDA has got you covered with safe, time-worn recipes in their canning guide. Here's the link to a PDF of the section on selecting, preparing and canning fruit, including plenty of berry goodness.
10. Fill 'er up
Consider treating berries the way our great-grandparents did. Fill your belly with them during these precious few weeks of summer until you can hardly stand to look at them anymore. Love those perfectly ripe little jewels with devotion until you suddenly almost hate them; and then you'll be happy to pass up mediocre supermarket berries until your next local berry season. It's berry romantic in its own little way, and I highly recommend it.
About the author: Carolyn Cope is the voice behind the popular food blog Umami Girl. In July, she'll trade the life of a CSA manager in New Jersey for the lively farmers' markets of London. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.