After months of settling for bland supermarket berries, prime strawberry season is finally upon us. Don't want to waste a second of it? Follow these five rules of thumb.
Shop with your senses
What’s the best way to tell if a batch of strawberries is perfectly ripe? Of course, if you’re shopping somewhere where sampling is allowed (a friendly farmer’s market, say) one bite will reveal whether they’re sweet and juicy. Color is also a powerful indicator—berries that are a dark, uniform red are usually a good bet. But be warned: relying on looks alone can be misleading—because though strawberries deepen in color after picking, they do not get any sweeter. That’s why, ultimately, if the matter of ripeness is in question, your nose always knows best. Strawberries at their peak have an unmistakably sweet and potent perfume that simply can’t be faked.
Pick your own
If you live in an area where berry farms are within striking distance, gather up some family or friends and turn the act of picking and eating into a daylong celebration. Not only is it a great excuse to get outside in the sunshine and support local farmers, buying in bulk often makes the price quite affordable. Even better? When you have pounds of strawberries at your disposal instead of a mere pint, there’s no pressure to play it safe in the kitchen—meaning you can bake a bunch of your favorite pies and still have plenty of berries leftover to play with in new ways.
Keep it simple
The lush, sweet flavor of perfectly ripe strawberries is hard to improve upon. So, in general, it’s wise to resist the urge to bury them in complicated recipes or dress them up with aggressive seasonings. If you want to fool around a little, try a spin on the classic formula for strawberry shortcake—macerating your berries with balsamic vinegar for a bit of sophistication, swapping in a brioche roll for the traditional biscuit, or adding a scoop of ice cream for extra indulgence. But you’ll never go wrong with a simple pie or small batch jam, either.
That said, there’s no reason to confine strawberries to dessert. Though most commonly used in sweet recipes, when approached creatively, these tangy berries can also transform savory dishes in surprising and delightful ways. Flavor-wise, they play particularly well with herbs like mint, basil, and thyme, and rich sauces and condiments like balsamic vinegar and blue cheese. Try adding thinly sliced strawberries to a grilled ham and cheese for a crave-able riff on the monte cristo, stirring them into a salad of baby spinach and blue cheese, or piling them atop sweet-and-salty gorgonzola crostini.
If by some fluke, you have the restraint to not to inhale all your berries in one sitting, make sure any remainders are stored properly. (Those little gems are fragile!) The most important thing to remember: water is the enemy. This means: hold off on washing strawberries until right before you plan to serve them—or risk encountering a sad, slimy pile of red mush the next time you reach for one. Instead, discard any berries that are bruised or moldy, and store whatever is left in a small container loosely tented with a paper towel (another moisture-combating technique). They will keep in the fridge for about 3-4 days. And if you really want to stretch your stash, save the little green “caps” and any other parings and stir them into a tall pitcher of water. The result? A lovely, gently-sweet, and perfectly summery “tea.”