If you weren't raised with a moral panic around wasting food, you may not understand why some of us freak out when the strawberries start to get soft. In order not to end up in the crackling fires of Hades for tossing the last few wrinkly blueberries into the trash, I've adopted some preservation strategies to use up all the berries I buy, even when they're slouching inexorably toward decay.
First off, I do my level best not to let things get to this point. It's taken a measure of self discipline—namely not hoarding untenable quantities of fruit out of fear that it will be the last chance of the season and/or my lifetime. (Climate change is real, y'all.) I buy what I can reasonably consume in a finite period of time and savor it with wistfulness and joy. I'm also occasionally decent about remembering to rinse them in a mixture of one cup white vinegar and four cups of water. Then I drain and dry them and stick them in the refrigerator in a vented, paper-towel-lined container to make them last a little longer.
And yet, I am still occasionally bedeviled by post-prime berries. They taunt me, smug in their certainty that I am emotionally incapable of dumping them in the trash (unless they're moldy—this is the Catholic loophole). So I have developed a few uses for the strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, and mulberries that aren't quite fresh enough to fly solo.
Simplest of all, there’s maceration. Toss berries in sugar and let them sit for at least 30 minutes. They'll soften and start to seep a lovely syrup that you can either strain off and use, or mash the berries into and deploy as a dessert topping, base for drinks, mix-in for hot cereal, condiment for pancakes, French toast, and waffles, or perfect a pairing with softened butter on toast, biscuits, muffins, and croissants.
Take a tip from my colleague Kate Welsh and bring out the berries' natural sweetness with a little heat. Simply roast them in a 400°F oven with a little brown sugar, lemon juice, and butter until they're slumped and softened, and deploy as above, or as a sweet breakfast side.
In a smoothie, no one can see your squicky parts. Throw the berries into the mix at room temperature or freeze them first as you see fit. Once they're all blended in, you won't be able to tell the difference. Same goes for jungle juice and sangria. Dump enough wine, brandy, rum, or Everclear on your iffy fruit and no one is gonna say boo about the level of freshness.
Your cocktails, lemonade, and iced tea are screaming out for a little fruity boost. Bring two parts water to one part sugar to a simmer in a saucepan, rough-chop the berries and cook it all down into a syrup that you can deploy in your beverages all summer long.
Things don't have to stay strictly sweet. Make a simple brine of vinegar (Champagne or wine vinegar works especially well), sugar, and salt, stirred until they're thoroughly dissolved, pour it over the berries in a lidded container and let it all hang out for at least four hours. Fish them out as needed and layer into sandwiches for a sweet-tart bite, or blend them into your favorite dressing to bring sweetness, joy, and color to your sad desk salad.