Strawberries are Springtimes Favorite Treat

strawberries.jpgWhen 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.

strawberry2.jpgIn 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.

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.

Susan Russo is a free lance food writer in San Diego, California. She publishes stories, recipes, and photos on her cooking blog, <Food Blogga and is a regular contributor to NPR’s <Kitchen Window. She is also the author of two upcoming books that will be published in the fall of 2010.