Why do we have such an infatuation with strawberries? Every year festivals dedicated to this small red marvel draw in thousands of spectators worldwide. Strawberry-themed websites acquire millions of visitors every month. There’s even an entire museum in Belgium dedicated to this juicy, delectable fruit.
Our love affair with strawberries began a long time ago; some believe humans were eating the berries as early as the stone age. As mankind evolved, strawberries integrated into many different cultures around the world. To ancient Romans, they were a symbol of love and beauty; medieval stonemasons carved them into altars to signify righteousness and perfection; and Bavarian tribesmen even festooned them on the horns of their cattle to appease the local elves.
The story behind the strawberry’s name is a convoluted one; some sources suggest that the term is simply a variation of ‘strewn berry’, named for the strawberry plant’s long, strewing runners. Others trace it to ‘streaw’, the Anglo-Saxon word for hay, which was used by English merchants to string berries together for market.
The strawberry industry began to boom around the 19th century, when the fruit gained notoriety and ice cream topped with the delectable fruit took off as a trendy dessert. Nowadays, the berries are still in very high demand and seem to be more popular than ever. With strawberries being grown in every state in the U.S. and in every province of Canada, it’s obvious our love of this natural treat has endured.
The most popular strawberry on the market is, by far, the Garden Strawberry (Fragaria x ananassa), which is believed to be a hybrid of two varieties from the Americas. The Garden Strawberry is the primary plant used by commercial and home gardeners around the world.
There are three main types of strawberry cultivars: June-bearing, everbearing, and day-neutral.
These plants bear their crops for a period of 2-3 weeks every year, from late-May to mid-June. They produce the largest strawberries of the three groups; most of them are of the Garden Strawberry varietal. Other cultivars of this type include Allstar, Earliglow, and Sparkle.
Ever-bearing strawberry plants produce two crops a year, one in the spring and another in the fall. Popular varietals include Fort Laramie and Ozark Beauty
Unlike the other two groups, these plants are not affected by the length of day. They can bear fruit as long as temperatures stay between 35-85°F/2-29°C. Cultivators include Albion, Selva, and Tribute.
Buying & Storing
Although they are available all year round, the best times to buy strawberries are from May to June in the northern hemisphere, and November to December in the southern hemisphere, when the markets are at its peak.
Try farmer’s markets instead of the grocery store; not only will your strawberries be fresher and of better quality, they’ll be less contaminated with pesticides. If you have no option other than a supermarket, some sources recommend spending extra money for organic.
Wherever you opt to buy them, inspect all of the fruit in a container to make sure they are evenly red with few white tips. Strawberries, unlike other types of fruits, don’t ripen after they’ve been harvested; white tips means they were picked too soon, and will likely have a tart flavor.
Look for a deep red color, shiny skin, fresh green leaves, and a sweet aroma. If you notice a berry that is moldy or disfigured in the bunch, move on to a different container.
If you are planning to eat your strawberries the same day as your purchase, don’t bother putting them in the fridge—this will diminish their flavor. Just keep them out at room temperature.
To save your strawberries for another day, transfer them from their original container to a plastic or glass container lined with paper toweling. Lay the strawberries flat and keep them uncovered in the fridge. Do not to wash the berries until you’re ready to eat them; excess moisture leads to rapid spoilage. Stored properly, fresh strawberries can last up to week.
Of course you can store them for longer periods in the freezer. The easiest method is to wash, hull, and dry the berries whole. Place them on cookie sheets to chill in the freezer for a few hours. Once frozen, you can pack the fruits in a ziplock bag or container and store for up to six months.
Another preservation technique is to add ¾ cup of sugar to each quart of hulled strawberries you want to store. Let stand for 15 minutes, place into a sealed container, and throw in the freezer. The sugar is used to help preserve the the color.
A third method to freeze strawberries whole calls for is by submerging them inside a liquid medium like sugar syrup, water, or unsweetened juice. Once you’re ready to use the berries, simply thaw out the entire container in the fridge.
Taste & Flavor
Strawberries have a sweet, slightly acidic taste, but it’s a unique combination of more than two dozen compounds that give strawberries their one-of-a-kind flavor. Chief among them is something called HDMF, which scientists believe is responsible for the a caramel-like aroma. Researchers have identified six volatile compounds in strawberries that enhance their sweet taste. In other words, these compounds make strawberries taste sweeter than they actually are. Perhaps this is one reason we love them so much.
It’s common knowledge that strawberries pair well with a variety of sweet ingredients and dairy products, but the savory side of this delicious fruit is often overlooked.
Aside from traditional flavor couplings with bananas, champagne, chocolate, custards, and whipped cream, these berries match beautifully with arugula, balsamic, cured meats, gruyére, raw fish, rhubarb, smoked salmon, and spinach.
Some great herbal and spice pairings include basil, blackpepper, cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, mint, rosemary, and vanilla.
Cooking & Preparing
Strawberries can be used in myriad: raw, baked, frozen, even steeped. They add a bright flavor to dishes that can either be savory or sweet, depending on pairings.
They work well baked into pies and cakes, or even added raw to various pastries for some natural sweetness. One of the most iconic desserts of all time is the strawberry shortcake, a traditional American recipe that layers sweet cake, strawberries, and whipped cream.
Along with desserts, strawberries are also extolled as preserves, jellies, and jams. Roasting the berries in a hot oven is an excellent way to release intense flavors that make for a delicious jam, flavored sauce, or condiment base.
Experiment with the savory side of the berry, pairing it with cured meats like prosciutto or smoked pork chops. Strawberries also hold their own in salads with arugula, gorgonzola, and walnuts.
If you want to get really creative, substitute strawberries for tomatoes! Make yourself a grilled cheese with strawberries, for instance. You’ll be surprised by the “zing” they bring to some fairly pedestrian dishes.
A Note about Green Strawberries:
Green strawberries have become a big food trend over the past few years in the culinary world. Chefs are pickling them, throwing them into salads, using them on cakes; there are even reports of green strawberries being paired with ingredients like duck confit and rhubarb.
There is great potential for these lean, tart berries. If you come across them at a farmer’s market, be sure to give them a chance. Try pickling them in rice wine vinegar, sugar, and lime for a delicious summer snack—the possibilities are endless.
Liz Unger is a food and travel writer from New York, where she is pursuing her Masters degree in Food Studies at NYU. Liz’s passion for adventure, food, and exotic landscapes has led her across seven continents throughout the past five years. She keeps a blog of her exploits at sorryimnotsorryblog.com.