Thursday, July 2, 2015

Storing Strawberries After the Harvest

I picked 13.5 pounds of strawberries last week. I turned those delicious berries into many different treats which I will be sharing over the next few posts. But to begin with, I'd like to share how I store my berries after bringing them home from the berry patch. I've found that with a few preparations my berries keep fresh for over a week if need be. This gives me time to make pies, jams and to enjoy the fruit without feeling rushed.

Strawberries have such a delicate, soft flesh that they easily bruise and macerate. The weeping juices from a bruised berry encourages other berries to begin to break down and before you know it, you have a container of mush. Strawberries also mold very quickly.

Here are some things to do to extend the shelf life of your berries.  

Early Season Berries
Picking early in the season ensures firm berries. I'm less likely to be tempted by overripe fruit in the berry patch if the berries are just beginning to redden up. That's not to say you should pick under-ripe fruit, make sure the berries are fully developed, bright red on all sides and sweet, but firm to the touch. Keep in contact with your local orchard, call before you go and ask when the fruit is at it's best.

Time of Day
Berries picked in the cool of the early morning tend to keep longer than those that have baked in the sun all day. The heat stored in the berries as they lay against each other in the picking basket will break the fruit down more quickly.

Don't Stack the Berries 
Most orchards that I've visited give a nice wide, long container for picking berries. This helps the berries to spread out, rather than pile on top of each other. The weight of the berries will easily crush lower berries and cause them to soften.

When you store your berries at home, keep them in containers that are wide and flat as well. (More on this later.)

Wash Immediately
I try to keep my schedule open after I go berry picking. I don't run errands with the fruit in the car. I try to get home as soon as possible and get to preparing my berries. The longer they sit unwashed, the more likely they are to mold. I've also learned that when dirty berries begin to break down it can be hard to wash them. A few times, I've had mushed, sandy berries mucked up in the corner of the picking box because I didn't get to them in time.

Preparing Berries for Storage
To prepare my berries, I stand over the sink with a colander in a bowl of cold running water. I use a pairing knife rather than a hulling tool. I find that the knife gives a nice clean edge that lessens the surface area and reduces the weeping moisture. I'm also faster with a knife. You really don't waste any more of the berry if you cut carefully. And if I do have a bit of attached berry, our Holland Lop bunny Emmet doesn't mind at all!

As I cut the tops off the berries they go directly into the cold water. When the colander is full, I rinse the berries three times or until the water runs clean. I fill the colander and bowl, swish the berries around, pick out imperfections and then drain, etc., etc.

The clean berries go in my turkey roasting pan because, again, this is my largest, widest vessel in the kitchen.  Let them drain well, drying the bottom berries off with paper towel if necessary.

Paper Towel is Your Friend
Moisture is the enemy! I store my berries in large Ziplock bags in the fridge, being careful not to overload the bags. The best storage trick is to place several pieces of sturdy paper towel on either side of the bag. The paper towel absorbs any moisture from the berries as they are stored. You can replace the towels after a day or two if they become very damp in the fridge.

You will see that instead of breaking down, the berries actually seal up the cut side and will shrink slightly around the slice.

I also lay the bags flat, in a single layer on the bottom shelf of the fridge.

Note: Don't use multiple ply paper napkins. Even with sturdy napkins the ply layers will stick to the berries and you'll be picking bits of paper off your harvest. (Found that out the hard way.) A good paper towel works best. You can use cloth napkins or washcloths, but just know that the berry juices will permanently stain the fabric.

In this method of storing my berries kept over a week. I was able to take my time in canning, dehydrating and baking the harvest into delicious treats.


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