Strawberries: It’s time to enjoy the sweetest treat of spring

Editor’s note: Food writer Casey Barber says May is the sweetest time to enjoy strawberries. Stay tuned for her June recipe selection and for all the months that follow.



CNN

Is there a milder time of year than strawberry season? As soon as the trees start bursting into pink buds, the first strawberries can’t be far behind at the farmer’s market. May is officially National Strawberry Month, although strawberries come into season throughout June in many parts of the United States.

If you think all strawberries are the same, you might be surprised to learn that there are hundreds of varieties in color, size, sweetness, and growing season. Growers choose their favorite variety “either for the quality of the berry or the quantity of berry,” said Tannwen Mount, co-owner of Terhune Orchards in Princeton, New Jersey. “Wholesalers want varieties that grow in quantity” and that withstand transport better than some of the more fragile varieties.

While some of the more exotic varieties are becoming more popular with domestic growers, such as the pale pinkish white pineberry, local farms frequently plant a few different varieties to best suit their region.

“Having a local berry, not a berry that was picked before it was ripe, makes a difference,” Mount said.

Now is the time to stop by your local farmers market or U-pick farm near you and sample some.

To find the ripest, sweetest strawberries, the same tips apply whether you’re picking fresh strawberries or evaluating baskets of berries at the market. “Look for an all-red bay all over the bay,” Mount advised. “If it has a white or green tip, it’s not ready.”

As with all produce, examine the berries as best you can for any soft or bruised spots. These are signs of a berry that is past its prime and is better made into jam than eaten fresh.

Jam is just one way to make the most of peak strawberry season. While it’s hard to improve on a perfectly ripe strawberry eaten fresh, sometimes you want to mix things up a bit. Here are some ideas to improve your strawberry transportation.

When it comes to letting the flavor of perfectly ripe strawberries shine, “I absolutely love strawberry shortcake,” Mount said. With three main components – strawberries, whipped cream and cakey cookies – it’s easy to put together.

“At our farm shop, we make fresh cookies and go out of our way to make fresh whipped cream,” she said, and the same can be accomplished at home. If you have a favorite cookie recipe, you’re halfway there. Or try this homemade cookie recipe.

For the more ambitious dessert maker or those with a sweet tooth for strawberry shortcake bars from the neighborhood ice cream truck, you can also make Strawberry Shortcake Sundaes inspired by the old school treat.

Jam is a tried-and-true way to preserve strawberries for year-round enjoyment, and a homemade jar is so much fresher than a jar on the supermarket shelves. As a bonus, with your own small batches of jam, you can experiment with adding other flavors.

A jar of homemade strawberry jam is so much fresher than a supermarket jar.

Because strawberries are low in pectin, they rely on other ingredients that will help the jam thicken and harden, instead of staying watery and loose. Many recipes call for commercial pectin, but sugar and lemon are two natural ingredients that will also help the cause.

This simple Strawberry Fridge Jam uses only strawberries, sugar and lemon juice and makes 1 pint of jam. Strawberry balsamic jam swaps vinegar for the tartness of lemon without sacrificing sweetness. And this strawberry and lavender jam recipe uses chia seeds as another natural thickener.

Even simpler than jam and just as versatile, roasted strawberries are another way to capture the sweet juiciness of the fruit and intensify it. The method is the same as for roasting vegetables: mix cut strawberries with seasonings and roast them on a parchment-lined rimmed baking sheet on high.

As with many strawberry recipes, the seasoning options are adaptable. A sweetener, such as maple syrup, honey, or even smoked sugar, helps turn the cooked juice into syrup. A dash of balsamic vinegar or red wine adds brightness. And spices from cinnamon to black pepper to vanilla move the flavor in different directions.

Swirl roasted strawberries into bowls of yogurt, drizzle them over ice cream, or use them as a topping on toast with fresh goat cheese or ricotta.

When strawberries are in season, ditch the bag of frozen berries and make strawberry margaritas. Mash strawberries with basil for a garden-fresh margarita or toss them with ice for a boozy slushie version. (Or do the same for a strawberry daiquiri!)

Savor a taste of spring with a strawberry martini, the perfect cocktail for the season.

Strawberry lemonade can be blended in a blender without the need to make simple syrup on the stovetop in advance. Make it with granulated sugar or agave nectar, and feel free to mix in fresh herbs like basil or mint to boost the flavor profile.

For a less sweet drink, make strawberry agua fresca. Or for a creamy treat, mix strawberry lassi with yogurt of your choice – any dairy-rich or dairy-free choice will work well.

“Fresh strawberries are the best, but it’s a very easy fruit to freeze,” Mount said, and “it’s such a wonderful treat to have in the middle of winter.” She always keeps a few bags in the freezer for her kids’ smoothies and other strawberry cravings.

To freeze fresh strawberries, wipe the strawberries with a damp cloth or rinse gently and thoroughly by patting with a cotton towel. Remove the green stems with a paring knife or strawberry sheller, then place the berries stem side down in a single layer on a baking sheet lined with parchment or waxed paper.

Freeze on the baking sheet for at least four hours until the berries are frozen solid, then transfer them to zip lock bags or vacuum seal them in portions. Strawberries will keep in the freezer for up to a year, just in time for next spring’s strawberry harvest.