As with so many of the precious perishables, my biggest concern in dealing with my massive berry booty was to avoid waste and spoilage. More than half of the haul went into the jam pot, and quite a few were eaten fresh with cereal or baked into a delicious cobbler.
As for the rest – for “part two” is all about remainders – many berries were carefully prepared to ride out the Fall and Winter in the freezer, some berries met their end in the dehydrator, others are being made into fruity wines.
To freeze fruit is to limit its potential usefulness later on, which I find difficult. When dealing with seasonal, highly perishable berries, however, I think it’s a must. Your berries, especially the raspberries, black berries and the like, will never come out of the freezer in nearly as nice a conditon as they went in – you can only have fresh berries for a few moments, you see. The formation and later melting of ice crystals destroys the structure of the berry. Once you’ve defrosted, the best you can hope for is a floppy, slightly waterlogged raspberry. I do not mean to suggest that freezing berries is not worthwhile, only that one ought to be aware of the unavoidable degradation in quality at the other end. Previously frozen berries are great for baking into muffins, scones, pancakes and waffles. They as positively indispensable in smoothie-making and make pleasant additions to certain warm-weather cocktails (perhaps in the place of ice cubes?).
The manner in which you will freeze your berries depends on projected future use.
The current (July/August 2007) issue of Cook’s Illustrated Magazine features a double-page, nearly exhaustive article all about How to Freeze Summer Produce. They believe that the best way to freeze fresh berries is in sugar or sugar syrup because both inhibit ice crystal formation. I have attempted neither technique, my primary objection being that I do not want to douse my fruit in sugar. I suppose that I could rinse them once they’ve defrosted, but since my method works just fine for me, I’ve stuck with it. Plus, it’s much simpler. I do just this:
- Clear space in the freezer for a cookie sheet – preferably the kind with a lip around the edge to prevent spill – and for whatever containers you’ll eventually use to store your frozen berries. Real estate in my freezer is very tight so for me, this was the hardest part.
- Pick over your berries. Use the already-smushed ones for jam, puree, cobbler, or sauce. Compost the moldy ones and those yet unripe.
- Arrange berries on your cookie sheet in single layer and place in the freezer. The cooler your berries are when you freeze them, the less condensation and ice will form on the outside. If you’ve gone u-picking on a warm day, it’s best to wait until your stash is at least down to room temperature before putting them to freeze.
- Once your berries are fairly solidly frozen on the cookie sheet, toss them into a heavy duty freezer bag (or some other preferred storage container), label and date, and shelve.
According to Cook’s Illustrated, zero degrees (or below) is an optimal temperature for your home freezer. Airflow, too, is very important. The more air you have moving around your product, the more quickly it will cool and the less damage it will sustain when defrosting.
The bulk of my frozen berries I left in whole-berry form as I suspect they are safest that way. I did, as an experiment, make some raw raspberry puree which I froze flat in a quart-sized heavy duty plastic bag. Now I have a thin little raspberry brick standing in my freezer, hardly taking up any space at all. I suspect it will be very delicious swirled into some wintertime oatmeal, or added to a smoothie, or made into sauce for ice cream.
The last method I employed in preserving the fruit whole was dehydration. Again, it is important to think about what you have in mind for your fruit down the road, and pick a method that is in line with those ends. I chose to dry my left over cobbler cherries because I absolutely love cooking with dried cherries, perhaps more so than with fresh ones. Dried cherries go just about anywhere a dried cranberry can – sprinkled over my salad, baked into cornmeal cookies, cooked down to fill a bar cookie. I bought my food dehydrator – a magic chef or something – on eBay for about seven bucks. It’s the basic home-use model: round, six trays, a lid and a fan at the bottom that circulates warm air throughout. Much, much fancier models exist, but this one suits my purposes adequately.
I washed, dried, halved and pitted my cherries before laying them out in a single layer in the machine. They took, with only minimal babysitting and one shuffle, about two days to dry. So long as they are stored in an airtight container, I see no reason why they would ever spoil, but I doubt they will survive the year before being devoured. There will be more cherries in a mere eleven months, after all.
I could not resist the siren call of strawberry wine. I made raspberry also. I am a wine novice. I own one how-to book and one recipe book, both of which I have only skimmed. I understand the basic principles and techniques, I think, but am ignorant of the subtleties. I know that there is a way to check the sugar and alcohol content – I may even own the tool for it. I also know there is a way to kill the yeast before bottling to make sure that corked bottles do not explode in my basement. I do not do any of these things in my winemaking, however. I seem, uncharacteristically, to lack some measure of fear or respect that might prevent me from doing such an incomplete job of it. Yet despite my failure to compulsively and exhaustively follow the recipe’s instructions, my first three batches of wine seem to have been reasonably successful. Two – the apple and strawberry – have been bottled, and the raspberry, bulk-aging in my linen closet, was even perfectly drinkable a mere month after it was born.
I will not herein attempt to explain home winemaking. I will say that, the way I have done it anyway, each step is simple and if you have a good chunk of time and don’t mind smelling a bit like cheap hooch once in a while (when racking or bottling, say), nothing should get in your way. All of my equipment and specialty ingredients – food-grade buckets, gallon jugs, rubber bungs, airlocks, a giant funnel, yeast and yeast nutrient, acid blends, corks and a corker – ran a little under a hundred dollars, though I am sure you could acquire all for less.
And while I wait for my closet-wine, I have even begun to dabble in flavored vodkas as well. Dreaming still of the Vault’s habanero “martini,” I have dried three of said peppers and tossed them into a vodka bottle to steep, quite unsure of what will come out the other end. With the remainder of the spirit, I’ve attempted a blueberry vodka (presently submerged with a vanilla bean and lemon juice, the alcohol in the liquor slowly leeching all of the berry’s beautiful color away) and a strawberry-and-vanilla fortified wine (strawberries, vanilla, white wine, sugar, and vodka). All of these I plan to let sit for one month and then taste.
For a more comprehensive – yet totally accessible – introduction to making wine at home, please check out Julia Brews & Julia’s Brews.