By Dawn M. Swidorski
Strawberries and summer go hand in hand. They are the first fruit that appears in northern climates and produce until early fall. Of course in more temperate parts of the US strawberries may be produced year round.The most common scientific names for strawberry are Fragaria virginiana and Fragaria chilioensis and belong to the family Rosaceae (rose).
They are fragrant and have a sweet flavor. There are more than 600 varieties of strawberries and though they vary slightly in flavor, size and texture, they are all marked by red flesh with “seeds” on the surface and a small, green cap and stem that sits on top. The “seeds” of the strawberry are really the fruit while the red fleshy part (what we call the fruit) is the “receptacle” that holds the parts of the flower together. Each strawberry averages 200 “seeds”.
In addition to cultivated varieties, there are wild varieties though they are much smaller in size and have a more intense flavor. Strawberries have grown wild for thousands of year in temperature regions throughout the world. They were a highly favored food in ancient Rome. After the fall of Rome they were primarily used for medicinal purposes.
In fact, Native American’s ate wild strawberries to help with colds. Juice from the wild strawberry was combined with water and used to soothe reddened eyes. A tea made from dried strawberry plant leaves was used for kidney trouble and helped relieve stomach trouble and saved the American Revolutionary Army from scurvy.
In the early 18th century a natural cross breeding of a North American and South American strawberry occurred in France. The result was a hybrid strawberry that was large, juicy and sweet, and one that quickly grew in popularity in Europe. Strawberries were considered a luxury item until the mid-1800’s when railways allowed them to be shipped longer distances and more people began to enjoy them.
The strawberry is now the most popular berry fruit in the world and the most popular in the US. In fact, 94% of American households consume strawberries an average of 3.4 pounds of fresh each year and another 1.8 pounds frozen. They can be used in beverages, soups, salads, sauces, salsas, desserts, and dried for trail mix or fruit leather.Strawberries are brimming with nutrients and antioxidants and have more vitamin C then an orange! They are low fat, low calorie and make the top ten must eat list.
Unfortunately, some people have an allergic response when eating strawberries. Symptoms may mimic hay fever or include dermatitis or hives, and in severe cases may cause breathing problems.
The United States, Canada, France, Italy, Japan, Australia and New Zealand are among the largest commercial producers of strawberries. Like many fruits and vegetables, the need to ship them long distances has resulted in hybrids that are often lacking taste. They look good, they ship well, but they are devoid of that wonderfully sweet flavor of some of the more “delicate” varieties.
If you can purchase your Strawberries at a local farmer’s market do so — you will be rewarded with a superior product over the grocery store variety. But even better, are the hundreds of farms around the country that allow you to pick your own. It’s a great way to spend the day with family and you can always freeze or make jam if you pick too many!
Always call before you head out to the farm, as strawberries are adversely affected by cold weather or rain. So before you make the trip make sure it’s going to be worth your while. Ask whether the farm provides free containers for picking or if you need to bring your own.The best time to pick is in the morning when it is still cool outside. Also on weekends, if there is a high turnout a field can easily be picked clean by noon! Bring a hat and sunscreen to protect you from the sun; knee pads can also add comfort. Be sure to bring water and maybe a small snack – picking fruit can work up an appetite and it’s not nice to eat strawberries you haven’t paid for.
Tips on How to Pick Strawberries
1. Be careful that your feet and knees do not damage plants or fruit in or along the edge of the row. This is the farmer’s livelihood and your source for fresh delicious strawberries so treat the area respectfully.
2. You can help the farmers by removing berries showing rot, sunburn, or insect injury from the plants and placing them between the rows behind you. If left in the plants, the rot will spread to other berries.
3. Strawberries do not ripen after picking so be certain to select only those berries that are fully red all the way to the crown of the berry.
4. Lightly grasp the stem just above the berry between the forefinger and the thumbnail and pull with a slight twisting motion. The stem should break about one-half inch from the berry.
6. Repeat the process (you can use both hands) until you’re holding 2 – 4 berries without crushing or bruising them.
7. Gently place the fruit into your container – rough handling will damage the berries.
8. Don’t overfill your containers or pack the berries down – once your container is full to about 5 inches switch to a new container.
9. Be sure to part the leaves with your hands to look for hidden berries ready for harvest.
10. Get your strawberries out of the sun as soon as possible after picking.
How to Store
Strawberries can only be stored in the refrigerator for 3 – 4 days. Don’t wash your strawberries until you are ready to use them (if you are going to freeze them there is an exception to this rule). Place them in layers separated by paper towels inside a plastic container or Ziploc bag and store carefully in the refrigerator where they won’t get bruised. For anything longer than 3 – 4 days the strawberries will need to be frozen or turned into jam or leather.
To freeze gently rinse and pat dry. You can either remove the cap and stem or leave it intact if freezing them whole. You may also freeze them cut or crushed depending upon how you are going to use them after thawing – but freezing whole preserves a higher concentration of vitamin C. Adding a bit of lemon juice to the berries will help to preserve their color.
If freezing whole or cut arrange them in a single layer on a cookie sheet and place them in the freezer. Once frozen, transfer the berries to a heavy plastic bag and return them to the freezer where they will keep for up to one year.