ask the kitchenista: saving strawberries

Dear Kitchenista,

How timely that you have started this Q & A feature! I was just wondering the best low-or-no sugar way for me to preserve the fresh strawberries offered for sale this time of year. I want to keep them available for breakfast year round (I hate buying them from France or California in winter). Thanks, Kitchenista!  — Sharon W.,  Asheville, NC

Dear Sharon,

I myself am a strawberry hoarder, too. And why not? When researchers measure them against other fruits, they weigh in as the forth highest source of antioxidants. They are rich in vitamin C and help reduce inflammation when consumed three or more times a week. They can even help regulate blood sugar, prevent heart disease, and protect us against cancer. Not to mention they are gorgeous, smell amazing and taste good. With chocolate on them. Or in a smoothie. Or on cereal. Or just naked.

I tend to buy strawberries in large quantities, (I have been known to clean out a display), whenever I can get my hands on organic ones, which aren’t available that often. According to the Environmental Working Group’s 2011 report “Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce,” strawberries are high on the list (top 12) foods most frequently found with pesticide residues. Additional research in 2011 has also shown non-organically grown strawberries to contain a high concentration of pesticide residues, including residues from 14 different pesticides.

Of course, I prefer local organic whenever possible during the season, but my priority for strawberries, year-round is to purchase organic. If buying local, from farmer’s markets or roadside stands in your area, ask if pesticides were used. Small farms might not use pesticides on their strawberries, but haven’t jumped through all the hoops to become certified organic, in which case I might be willing to buy them, if I trust the source. It’s important to know if pesticides are in use, especially if you are going to go to a “you pick it” farm with young kids, who can be particularly sensitive to such toxins. You’ll want to know what the exposure to chemicals—on your hands and clothing—will be.

Since you ask about low-or-no-sugar methods for keeping strawberries, I’m going to skip talking about jams, jellies or preserves. The best way to preserve them, sugar-free, and have them fresh, year-round is to freeze them. Remember to start with the freshest strawberries possible. Strawberries start to lose freshness and nutrients quickly and will only last a few days in the fridge, so the sooner you freeze them the better. I use this method because, if you’ve ever tried to just cut up fruit and throw it into a ziplock or container and freeze it, you already know that it freezes into a solid block that requires an ice pick in order to hack off a portion. Follow these steps and they will remain separated and easy to grab a handful of for your use in a smoothie, to top cereal, or to use in any recipe. Prepared and stored in this manner berries (or mostly any fruit…I do this with peeled bananas too ), can last up to a year in the freezer:

1. Gently wash berries and pat them dry or allow them to air dry for an hour or so. Slice off the tops, including the stem and any white area, then cut them in half lengthwise. (You can leave them whole, too, but since I use them primarily for my daughter’s morning smoothies, I cut them in half so they will blend up more easily and not jam up the VitaMix)

2. Line one or more rimmed baking sheets (depending on how many berries you have) with parchment or SilPats (silicone sheet pan liners). Spread berries in a single layer on the sheets (any which way, they don’t have to be lined up uniformly or anything OCD like that), and  place them, uncovered, or loosely covered with plastic wrap in the freezer. Allow them to freeze solid, about 12 hours.

3. Once frozen solid, transfer the berries (they may stick to the parchment a bit, but peel off relatively easy) to a freezer weight plastic zipper bag. Press out as much of the air from the bag as possible before sealing, to minimize freezer burn over time. If you are planning to leave them in the freezer for months, then consider double bagging them.  Place the bagged berries in the freezer, where they will keep for up to one year.

Note: I will warn you that the thawed berries will not be firm and bright like they were when raw and fresh. They tend to thaw out a bit mushier, and slightly darker…but can still be used for anything you would use fresh strawberries for. For smoothies, toss into the blender frozen.

Optional: Brushing the berries with a bit of lemon juice or adding a sprinkle of citric acid before you freeze them will help to preserve their color.