Freezing and drying keep berry flavors fresh all year

Perhaps no other fruits are more beholden to the temperament of nature than are our delicate crops of berries. But when they are ripe for picking, there is a wealth of possible techniques for preserving their fresh and summery flavors for use later on.

Berries freeze beautifully. At Canter-Berry Farms, Clarrisa Metzler Cross suggests knowing your source.

"If the berries are from a reputable farm and aren't sprayed with pesticides, you don't even need to wash them," she said.

Simply pack the berries loosely in freezer containers, leaving about ½-inch headspace for expansion. But if you're unsure of the source, or if the berries are particularly dusty, it's a good idea to rinse them before freezing.

Very ripe, delicate raspberries or strawberries may benefit by first spreading the fruit onto a baking sheet and freezing until solid before packing. In the Times Test Kitchen, we tried both dry-pack methods for freezing strawberries and could tell no difference in the quality.

The wet-pack method of freezing uses a liquid such as juice or water, or a sugar or honey syrup. Lightly pack the berries in freezer containers, then pour the cold liquid over the berries, leaving ½-inch headspace for pints and 1 inch for quarts.

A light sugar syrup is perfect for berries that will later be puréed for sauces or fillings. Combine 2 cups sugar and 4 cups water in a saucepan. Stir over medium heat to dissolve the sugar, then bring to a boil for 1 minute. Cool and chill completely before using. You will need about 1 cup syrup for 3 cups of berries.

We also experimented with honey flavored with raspberry and lavender, which added mild, floral flavor hints. Combine 1 cup honey to 4 cups water in a saucepan. Warm over medium heat to dissolve the honey, then chill completely before using.

On drying fruit

At the height of last summer's fruit season, many readers asked for directions for drying berries, which add texture and color to salads and to stuffings for pork and poultry. Scattered through muffins and quick breads, they add their own intense, concentrated flavors of sweet and tart.

The glistening packages of dried blueberries, cranberries and strawberries in the markets can be expensive, and readers were looking for an alternative. But after our experiments in the test kitchen, the expense of commercial brands seems reasonable. Four cups of fresh berries will shrink to just a cup when dried, and will often take up to 8 hours of drying time in a low oven. Sun-drying sounds romantic, but our Northwest summers aren't hot enough for the fruit to dry quickly, and mold will be a problem.

So if you're determined to dry your own fruit, use an electric oven or, better yet, buy a food dehydrator and follow the manufacturer's directions.

Before any method of drying, the fruit can be dipped in one of two solutions, either a honey dip or pectin dip. The dips may slow the drying process a bit but will help to preserve the berries' jewel colors and accent their sweetness. A honey dip combines 1-½ cups water with ½ cup sugar in a saucepan set on medium-low heat; stir until the sugar dissolves. Boil 1 minute. Then remove from the heat and stir in ½ cup honey. Cool. Dip small batches of berries at a time in the solution and immediately remove with a slotted spoon to a baking sheet lined with several layers of paper towels to drain.

A pectin dip combines 1 box powdered pectin and 1 cup water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring well, and boil 1 minute. Add ½ cup sugar, stirring to dissolve. Remove from the heat and stir in cold water to equal 2 cups. Cool slightly, then glaze the fruit with a thin coating, drain well and spread on a baking sheet lined with several layers of paper towels to drain further.

When ready to begin the drying process, set the oven to 150 degrees. Cover baking racks with cheesecloth (don't allow any cheesecloth to hang over the racks) and place them on baking sheets. Set the door ajar with a wooden spoon, and if possible place a small fan outside of the oven to keep the air circulating within it.

Blueberries and strawberries are best for oven drying. The blueberries should be blanched briefly in boiling water before drying, about 30 seconds, to soften the tougher skins. Drain well, then coat with a pectin or honey dip. Arrange on prepared cheesecloth-covered baking racks and dry about 6 to 8 hours.

To dry strawberries, hull about 4 cups and cut each berry down the length into 3 slices. (If sliced too thin, the berries will stick to the cheesecloth.) Dip in the honey solution and arrange the berries on 2 prepared baking sheets. Stagger the sheets on oven racks and switch halfway through the drying time, about 6 to 8 hours.

Weather makes a difference

Olga Fuste, Washington State University Pierce County Cooperative Extension agent, says that drying time will depend on the weather and will take longer if the day is humid or rainy. "If the fruit sticks to your finger when touched, it will need more drying time" she tells us. "Fully dry fruit will be pliable but not sticky, and will be stable at room temperature," she said. If you like moister fruit, Fuste suggests refrigerating or freezing to keep it safe from molding. And any fruit that does mold should be discarded.

Another alternative, the commercial food dehydrator, comes in various sizes with trays that stack, making it easy to dry large batches of fruit. The dehydrator should have a good ventilation system that will allow moisture to escape. Follow drying times specified by the manufacturer's instructions.

— Source: "The Big Book of Preserving the Harvest" by Carol W. Costenbader (Storey Books, 1997).