The Japanese say that walking in an evergreen forest and "taking in the atmosphere" (shinrin-yoku, or "forest bathing trip") is therapeutic for the health and the spirit. If that's true, then surely hanging around for hours foraging juniper berries is good for the soul. Whenever I'm foraging among the junipers I like to breathe in deeply. The aroma is a mix of the forest and the earth, rich and balsamic, like a shot of a winter holiday elixir.
There are some 60 species of juniper found around the world, growing in different ways: some as shrubs, low and sprawling; some more upright as trees. In North America, there are 13 indigenous species that grow wild, and more that are commercially cultivated varieties, not all of which are edible. If you look closely at a juniper branch, you'll find that they all have tiny scale-like needles. On younger trees, the needles can be sharp and prickly.
Juniper berries are not real berries. They're cones with scales so miniature and packed down that you can't even see the scales — instead, they appear as round berries. Only the female tree makes the berries, while the male just has little brown cones.
Juniper berries are most famously known as the flavoring in gin, and in fact the word gin comes from the French genievre, or juniper. flavoring can be very strong and have a slightly turpentine-like finish.
Juniper berries found in the grocery store and in gin are those of the common juniper, which grows as a low sprawling shrub and can be found in many parts of North America as well as Europe. However, it is not so "common" in the mid-Atlantic and other regions, as it favors cliff edges and rocky soils.
The juniper that is grows most often in the wild in central and eastern North America is called (somewhat confusingly) eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana). It is one of the first trees that you can see pioneering in old fields and hedgerows. The Comanche and the Lakota American Indians used the berries of the eastern red cedar, eating them whole and also crushed as a spice for soups, meats, and stews. The berry is much smaller than that of the common juniper. It's also sweeter and less harsh, without those "turpentine" gin notes.
This summer, we enjoyed the underripe green berries, and now they have ripened into a blue-black hue with a slight white dusting wrapper. We pick them now when they are still firm, since later in the winter they may start to crumble and lose their peak quality. This year is a gold mine for juniper berries so those in the know are stashing away lots of them. Who knows whether next year will be as good? Last year, I could barely find a tree with any berries to speak of.
The berries can be eaten dried, fresh, chopped, or powdered to impart a sharp, peppery flavor to balance the richness of winter game, meats, soups, and stews. Right before using the berries, you can also grind and sprinkle them on meats as a seasoning, or make a juniper sugar for blueberry scones (add extra juniper spice if you're using foraged eastern red cedar berries, as their flavor is more subtle). Or try chocolate sables with juniper sugar for a treat that's not too sweet and more on the order of a European-style biscuit cookie.
Juniper berries are also a traditional ingredient in making German sauerkraut and they pickle well on their own. On the savory side, the Wong family's favorite is wintertime cauliflower soup with wild juniper. The pepperiness of the juniper balances the creaminess of the cauliflower exquisitely.
Note: Fresh juniper can have strong antiviral and other medicinal properties. If you are pregnant or under medications consult your physician before consuming.