Editor’s Note: Food writer Casey Barber says May is the sweetest time to savor strawberries. Stay tuned for her June recipe selection, and for all the months that follow.
Is there a sweeter 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 farmers market. May is officially National Strawberry Month, though strawberries will come into season throughout June for many regions of the United States.
If you think all strawberries are the same, you might be surprised to learn there are hundreds of varieties ranging in color, size, sweetness and growing season. Growers choose their preferred variety “either for the quality of the berry or the quantity of the berry,” said Tannwen Mount, co-owner of Terhune Orchards in Princeton, New Jersey. “Wholesalers want ones that grow in quantity” and that can stand up better in transit than some of the more fragile varieties.
While some of the more exotic varieties are becoming more popular with nationwide growers, such as the pale pinkish white pineberry, local farms will frequently plant a few different varieties to best suit their region.
“Having a local berry, and not a berry that’s been picked before it’s ripe, makes a difference,” Mount said.
Now is the time to stop by your local farmers market or a pick-your-own farm near you and taste a few.
To find the ripest, sweetest strawberries, the same tips apply whether you’re picking fresh or assessing baskets of berries at the market. “Look for a berry that is fully red throughout the berry,” 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 soft or bruised spots. Those are signs of a berry that’s past its prime, and better for turning into jam than eating fresh.
Jam is just one of the ways to make the most of peak strawberry season. Though it’s hard to improve on a perfectly ripe strawberry eaten fresh out of hand, sometimes you want to mix things up a little. Here are some ideas for enhancing your strawberry haul.
When it comes to letting the flavor of perfectly ripe strawberries shine, “I just really love strawberry shortcake,” Mount said. With three main components – strawberries, whipped cream and cakey biscuits – it’s easy to assemble.
“In our farm store, we make fresh biscuits and take the effort to make fresh whipped cream,” she said, and the same can be accomplished at home. If you have a favorite biscuit recipe, you’re already halfway there. Or try this recipe made with homemade drop biscuits.
For more ambitious dessert makers, or those who have a nostalgic soft spot for the strawberry shortcake bars from the neighborhood ice cream truck, you can also make strawberry shortcake ice cream sundaes inspired by the old-school treat.
Jam is a time-tested way of preserving strawberries for enjoyment year-round, and a homemade jar is so much fresher than one off the supermarket shelves. As a bonus, with your own small batches of jam, you can experiment by adding in other flavors.
Because strawberries are low in pectin, they rely on other ingredients that will help the jam thicken and set, instead of remaining runny and loose. Many recipes call for commercial pectin, but sugar and lemon are two natural ingredients that will help the cause as well.
This simple strawberry refrigerator jam uses only strawberries, sugar and lemon juice, and yields 1 pint of jam. Strawberry balsamic jam swaps vinegar for lemon’s acidity without sacrificing sweetness. And this strawberry 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 fruit’s sweet juiciness and intensify it. The method is the same as roasting vegetables: Toss trimmed strawberries with seasonings and roast them on a parchment-lined rimmed sheet pan at a high temperature.
As with so 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 shift the flavor in various directions.
Swirl roasted strawberries into yogurt bowls, spoon over ice cream or use as a topping on toasted bread with fresh goat cheese or ricotta.
Strawberry drinks and cocktails
When strawberries are in season, ditch the bag of frozen berries and make strawberry margaritas. Muddle strawberries with basil for a garden-fresh margarita or blend with ice for a boozy slushie version. (Or do the same for a strawberry daiquiri!)
Strawberry lemonade can be whirred up 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 blend in fresh herbs such as basil or mint to perk up the flavor profile.
Freezing strawberries for later
“Fresh strawberries are the best but are a really easy fruit to freeze,” Mount said, and “they’re 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 pat dry with a cotton towel. Remove the green stems with a paring knife or strawberry huller, then place the berries stem-side down in a single layer on a parchment- or waxed paper-lined baking sheet.
Freeze on the baking sheet for at least four hours until the berries are frozen solid, then transfer to zip-top bags or vacuum seal in portions. Strawberries will keep in the freezer for up to a year, just in time for next spring’s strawberry harvest.
Casey Barber is a food writer, illustrator and photographer; the author of “Pierogi Love: New Takes on an Old-World Comfort Food” and “Classic Snacks Made From Scratch: 70 Homemade Versions of Your Favorite Brand-Name Treats”; and editor of the website Good. Food. Stories.