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How to use summer berries before they spoil
How to use summer berries before they spoil

The most wonderful time of the year has begun in earnest. Forget summer, it’s berry picking season. Depending on where you live, the strawberry harvest may be past its peak, but strawberries are just the beginning of months of abundance. In June, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries begin to ripen and should be available in abundance for most of the rest of the summer.

The only problem with berries is that it’s easy to have more than you can eat before they mold and turn to mush. A full table at the farmers’ market is just too tempting, and when you visit a pick-your-own farm, you want to get your money’s worth. So what’s the best way to reap a bumper crop once it’s in your kitchen?

The standard answer is often baking—and the possibilities are endless. There’s galette, crisp, pie, cobbler, and crumble—and all of them can usually be made with any mix of berries, depending on what’s around and in season. You can’t go wrong with shortcake, muffins, or a striking layer cake like this lemon berry version or the berry whipped cream cake that’s one of the highlights of Whole Foods’ bakery section. Berries can also play a savory role at the dinner table: Add them to green salads and grains, or get creative with ceviche or a blackberry sauce for grilled pork.

But during the short period of maximum ripeness of fresh berries, you can only cook so many dinners—and a kitchen can only accommodate so many baked goods. According to Kelly Swann of Swann Farms in Owings, Maryland, strawberries are best eaten as soon as possible after picking. Blackberries and raspberries will stay fresh in the refrigerator for several days, and blueberries will keep for one to two weeks. Be sure to dry all berries thoroughly before placing them in the refrigerator; too much water will speed up spoilage, especially with strawberries.

If you’ve been overzealous while shopping or picking, you may be looking not just for recipes but for solutions. Ideally, quick ones. The first and easiest way to extend the shelf life of your fresh fruit by killing mold spores and bacteria is to do a water and vinegar wash. A common formula for the solution is 1 part vinegar to 3 parts water. A quick soak followed by rinsing and drying is all you need. (Here’s the primer from Food 52.)

If you’re in the mood for more than just snacking on berries, Swann has plenty of options. She’s a busy mom who works full time and helps her husband on the farm. Strawberry, blackberry and blueberry fields grow nearby, and she knows why she has too many berries. The key to reducing waste, she explains, is having a clear plan.

“If I think about it carefully, like a squirrel with acorns, I save them,” she said.

This is the best way to freeze berries

Swann swears by a simple method for freezing berries. First, she washes them and pats them dry. If she’s using strawberries, she cuts off the tops and places each berry cut side down on a baking sheet. For other berries, she makes sure to spread them out on the sheet so no berry is touching another. Then she puts the sheet in the freezer for 30 minutes, takes it out, and transfers the berries to zip-top bags before putting them back in the freezer.

The half hour on the baking tray prevents the berries from sticking together in clumps when frozen. After just a few hours, they can easily be measured out for smoothies and will last well into winter.

Make berry purees and shrubs

Swann also purees her excess berries to use as sauces and toppings. The method is dead simple: For every cup of berries, add a teaspoon of lemon juice and about 2 tablespoons of granulated sugar—though you can adjust the amount of sugar to taste. Puree the mixture in a food processor or blender until smooth and liquid, then strain out the seeds if you like. (You’ll probably want to do this with blackberries. For other berries, it may not be necessary.)

An alternative method: Instead of puréeing the berries immediately, add sugar and lemon juice and let them macerate in the refrigerator for several days. This will enhance the flavor of the berries, which is important if you want to refine your syrup even further and make a shrub, a vinegar-based fruit syrup that can form the base of a non-alcoholic drink or be mixed with spirits to spice up a summer drink.

If the combination of sweet and savory appeals to you, you can also experiment with quick pickled strawberries, which works particularly well with strawberries and blueberries. This Food 52 quick pickled strawberries recipe can be adapted for different fruits, and you can easily swap out the spices and peppers to suit your taste.

Pickled berries taste particularly good on crostini and in sauces over grilled meat.

Jam is another foolproof way to turn a pile of berries into a few small jars of condiments. Berry jam is best made on the stove, which is a bit more labor-intensive than the oven method, which works for larger stone fruits. But even so, the effort is minimal; berry jam should cook for little more than half an hour. And you don’t need to can if you commit to storing your jam in the fridge and eating it within a month.

Get the recipe: Chunky berry sauce

Try homemade fruit leather

If you’re looking for a way to use berries while producing little to no waste, consider investing in equipment. A juicer is handy—you can drink your berries and the cleanly separated pulp is a project in itself.

Jessica Richards, a farmer and gardener in southern Maryland, grew up eating fruit leather that her grandmother made and sent from Florida. She used mangoes, pineapples and bananas, essentially creating a healthier fruit roll. Today, Richards grows several varieties of berries and follows her grandmother’s methods when she gets a bumper crop.

She lets the leftover pulp macerate in her juicer for about two hours. (A good rule of thumb is to use 2 tablespoons of sugar per cup of pulp.) Then she strains the pulp through a metal sieve to remove the seeds, adding lemon juice or additional sugar to taste. Richards uses a dehydrator to make her fruit leather, but many air fryers also have a dehydrating function. Some recipes call for air-drying in the sun or baking on a sheet pan in a 140-degree oven, the drying temperature recommended by the National Center for Home Food Preservation. But many ovens can’t handle a temperature that low. The key is to spread the pulp mixture as thinly as possible and to proceed with a fair amount of patience.

One benefit of fruit leather: It’s the perfect use, Richards says, for berries that are “on the edge of human consumption,” too ripe to eat but not really rotten yet. They’re also delicious improvised; Richards says if she doesn’t have enough pulp for a whole leaf, she just adds applesauce until she has the right amount left.

By Everly