Berries are small, succulent fruits that grow on bushes, vines or canes. Although available year-round, they are more flavorful, plentiful and affordable in the spring and summer months. Exceptions are cranberries, which are in season in the autumn, and raspberries, which have a second harvest in the fall.
Select berries with care. Never buy them if they are moist, overly soft, pale colored or show signs of mold. Do not buy berries if their cartons are leaking and wet, a sure sign that unseen fruits will be moldy. Berries are best in their natural season. Seek them out at large food stores, farmers’ markets and pick-your-own farms.
Berries are fragile so handle them with care. All require refrigeration, and they freeze well. Don’t wash berries until just before you are ready to eat them, as the moisture will encourage mold. If you don’t plan to eat the berries within 1 to 2 days, rinse and dry them completely and then freeze them. They will keep for 8 to 10 months.
Although all fresh berries should be rinsed, do not soak them for any length of time since they will absorb the water and turn mushy. For eating on their own, all berries, even the largest strawberries, should be left whole.
To improve the flavor of lackluster berries, put them in a bowl (hull and slice strawberries first) and sprinkle with a tablespoon or two of sugar for every pint. Let stand at room temperature for at least 15 minutes. The sugar draws moisture from the berries to make a sweet natural syrup.
Put cranberries in the freezer in their original plastic bag packaging. Pack blueberries in rigid plastic containers and freeze. Spread more delicate raspberries, blackberries and hulled strawberries in a single layer on a baking sheet and freeze until firm. Transfer the berries to rigid plastic containers or sealable plastic freezer bags and place in the freezer.
There is no need to thaw frozen berries for many recipes, including most sauces or ice creams. If a recipe calls for thawed berries, let them stand at room temperature for about an hour. If necessary, transfer them to a colander to drain.
Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Kitchen Companion: The A to Z Guide to Everyday Cooking, Equipment and Ingredients (Time-Life Books, 2000)