What can’t you do with a strawberry? The sweet harbinger of spring is much more flexible than you’d think. Here’s how to select, store, and prep strawberries for maximum enjoyment.
We reached out to Josh Laurano, executive chef and partner of New York City Italian restaurant La Sirena, to make sure we were choosing strawberries correctly (and not missing out on any delicious ways to eat more of them).
There are two major groups of strawberries: the year-round California-grown workhorses shipped to supermarkets nationwide and the seasonally available berries in your region. And as Susan Spungen writes in her cookbook Strawberries, “It doesn’t matter where you live: Whatever locally grown strawberries you can get your hands on are going to be eons better than those that are on sale at the supermarket.” She’s right. Locally procured berries tend to be smaller, juicier, sweeter, more fragile, and more delicious than the firmer, more widely available berries shipped from thousands of miles away.
At the farmers’market, look for bright-red berries with a sweet smell, but Laurano insists that you must eat one to know if they’re good. “Any good farmers’ market is happy—if you ask—to let you sample the merchandise.” He adds that “their green stems should be looking alive and dancing in the cardboard container.” (You might also see green strawberries, less-than-ripe, firm berries that many chefs have taken to pickling or macerating in olive oil, as Laurano does.)
First off, whether they’re store-bought or fresh from the market, discard any with mold immediately. As Laurano laughs, “One bad friend can ruin the night for everybody!”
Fresh-from-the-field or market berries can sit at room temperature for an afternoon unless the room is very hot, so find a cool area. “Keeping them dry is really important,” says Laurano. Ideally, you don’t want to wash berries until you want to use them, but if they’re really fresh, you might want to rinse off any little critters that hitched a ride from the farm, drying them well afterwards. Laurano typically uses his berries the day he gets them, but if you’ll be using yours the next day, spread them out, not touching, on a paper towel-lined sheet pan, cover loosely with plastic wrap, and put them in the refrigerator. (You can also hull and freeze them; here’s how to do that.)
The best part! Strawberries are great with vanilla, cream, and chocolate, sure, but they’re also beautiful foils for savory dishes. Think: black pepper and balsamic, tomatoes and cucumbers, ricotta and mozzarella, sugar snap peas and rhubarb.
Supermarket strawberries, which tend to have a firmer texture, can macerate with balsamic vinegar, black pepper, and sugar to be ladled on top of angel food cake, ice cream, or vanilla panna cotta. Laurano likes to chop them up for a “garbage salad” for his wife and family, pairing them with whatever else needs to go in the fridge. (Ricotta, sugar snap peas, baby spinach, olive oil, sherry vinegar and dill would be lovely.)
Got great farmers’ market strawberries? Laurano typically likes to do “as little as possible,” popping tiny berries on cheese and meat trays. When he gets more inventive, he’ll pair them with gamey meat such as lamb or duck, because the fruit’s sweetness balances the meats’ funkiness. “In Italy they’d make a mostarda,” he notes, which is sort of fruit spread typically including mustard oil or powder. It’s a little fiery, a little savory, and very fruity.
You can make strawberry gazpachos to tide you over till tomato season arrive, or freeze packets of berries to have sweet smoothies all winter long. You can dip them in chocolate, which can be a fun—albeit messy—thing to do with kids.
Or you can just sit with a pint at your kitchen table and eat them all at one go. There’s no wrong way to do strawberries.
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Gourmet.com, Bon Appétit, Travel & Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and Epicurious. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @alexvanburen.