If there is any such thing as an all-American fruit, it's strawberries. They're our most popular dessert fruit. In most places local strawberries have a very short season. You can, of course, buy them year round, but like a lot of good things, the best strawberries are still the ones you get locally during those few brief weeks that they're in season.
The first refrigerated shipment of strawberries in this country was made in 1843, when 40,000 quarts were shipped out of Cincinnati. That's a lot of strawberries. But in 1992, California shipped more than 5,160,000 quarts every day. More than 300,000 acres of strawberries are now cultivated worldwide - half of them in the United States. California is the biggest producer, and I think it grows the best commercially produced strawberries. We also get strawberries from Florida, New Zealand, Argentina, and Chile. Mexico and Guatemala also grow them, but I don't think they have much flavor.
Although there a different strawberry strains, there are three basic types: wild strawberries (often called fraises des bois), commercially grown hybrids, and local strawberries. I put locals into a separate category because, compared to strawberries grown and shipped from California and Florida, local strawberries - picked ripe by hand and sold close to home - taste totally different.
For hundreds of years wild strawberries were the only ones available. They're most frequently found in alfalfa and clover fields, where they seem to grow best. Very tiny, with a tart, delicate flavor, wild strawberries show up in late June in most places.
Although wild strawberries are native to the Americas, most commercially grown berries are produced from hybrids first developed in France, where wild strawberries imported from Virginia were planted next to yellow Chilean strawberries. These varieties cross-pollinated to produce a sweet red berry several times larger than its wild cousin.
A local strawberry is simply any strawberry grown and sold not far from where you are. They're ripened right on the plant and picked by hand. Vine-ripened berries are darker and sweeter than shipped berries, but they're very, very fragile. Local strawberries are picked early every morning, when the dew is still on them. The whole season lasts only about three weeks - usually from mid-June to early July. But too much rain in June can ruin the entire crop. One year there were heavy rains in our part of New Jersey during strawberry season, and we had strawberries for only two days! So when those ripe local berries appear at your market, grab 'em.
Commercial cultivars are bred to be firmer and heartier than most varieties so that they'll stand up to shipping. And, of course, they're shipped under refrigeration, which is an absolute necessity. Strawberries are an exception to my no-refrigeration rule. They must be refrigerated.
Right now the top-of-the-line commercially grown strawberry is the Driscoll Stern. It's the great big one with the stem cut long. It looks spectacular and is good for desserts like chocolate fondue. But I still look for small berries: I think they have the best flavor.
When you're selecting strawberries, look for bright, deep red, glossy berries with fresh green caps, leaves, and stems. They should also be dry. Look at the bottom of the box: there should be no red stains or seepage showing. And, of course, stay away from berries that have turned dull and bluish. They're goners.
Rule 1: Refrigerate
Rule 2: Refrigerate
Rule 3: Refrigerate
Strawberries, like most other berries, won't ripen any further once they're pulled from the vine. Nothing you can do at home will make a green berry ripen. And once the berry cap is pulled, it will deteriorate very quickly. You can hold ripe strawberries in the refrigerator a day or two and still have pretty good berries, but the best thing to do is to eat strawberries the same day you buy them.
Just as important: store the strawberries untouched. Never, ever wash or remove the strawberry cap until you're ready to eat the berry. Then just wash the berries with a gentle spray of cool water and remove the caps after the berries have drained.
The no-touch rule also holds if you're planning to freeze the berries. Just pop them into a plastic bag and put them into the freezer unwashed and uncapped. Rinse briefly and remove the caps only when you're ready to serve.
Wild Strawberries: early June, where available
Local Strawberries: in most areas, mid-June and early July
California Strawberries: January through November, with peak in March through May
Florida Strawberries: December through May, with peak in March and April
Imports: from New Zealand and Chile, November through April; from Mexico and Guatemala, early spring
Chocolate Covered Strawberries
Christmas Pears with Strawberry Sauce
Strawberry Angel Pie
Other recipes from Produce Pete.