Containing Strawberry Freshness

It’s strawberry season!  Those lush, first fruits of summer are starting to appear in home gardens, farmer’s markets, and u-pick patches.  How do you keep them fresh and enjoy them at their prime?

There is nothing worse than having fresh strawberries go bad within a day or two.  Because it happens all too frequently, consumers have shared their ‘secrets’ or methods to thwart this disappointing situation.  Any number of recommendations on keeping strawberries fresh can be found by perusing the web.  One site, thekitchen.com [1], put seven popular methods of storing strawberries to the test with the hopes of find the best method of storing strawberries longer.  The test findings revealed that rinsing the strawberries in vinegar water prior to storage proved to be the best.  Having heard that method several years ago, I tried it and did not find it to be as successful as touted.   According to food scientists, moisture is the enemy of strawberries.  So what do the experts recommend?

Rinse the berries and remove caps when you are ready to eat or use them.    

University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension [2] says that “strawberries are like small sponges and soak up all the water they come into contact with.  Once they have soaked it up, they are quick to turn to mush and mold even if they have been thoroughly patted dry.” This is also the reason that strawberries should not be picked when they are damp.  The same holds true for berries that have experienced heavy rain or several days of wet weather even though they are dry at the time of picking; they are on moisture overload and will not keep long regardless of how they are cared for or stored.

Therefore, strawberries should only be washed before eating or using to remove dirt and any potential bacterial contamination.  To wash, rinse the berries thoroughly under cool running water, drain in a clean strainer, and pat dry with paper towels.  For any berries showing signs of dirt, gently rub the berry under running water.  Linda J Harris, Food Safety Expert at UC Davis [3], says “Washing strawberries in a sink filled with water is not recommended since the standing water can spread contamination from one berry to another.  The use of soap or detergent is also not recommended or approved for washing fruits and vegetables because the produce can absorb detergent residues.”

Refrigerate if not used right away.

Strawberries do not ripen after picking so putting them in the refrigerator does not slow the ripening.  It does, however, slow the progression of mold growth on or between the berries if they will not be used for eating or cooking shortly after picking.  If they will be used or eaten after picking, they will not deteriorate sitting on a counter for a couple of hours at room temperature.  Cold temperatures suppress the flavor of the berries so they will taste sweeter if you let them come to room temperature before eating.

The optimum storage temperature for strawberries is 32⁰ to 36⁰F with humidity at 90 to 95 percent.  Therefore, the refrigerator fruit crisper drawer is the best place to keep them.  Purchased berries can be stored in the plastic clamshell containers they are usually sold in. However, the containers should be opened and the berries checked for any that are crushed or spoiling and removed before refrigerating.  For fresh picked berries, consider placing them in layers between paper towels in a covered container.  The purpose of the paper towels is to soak up excess moisture from the strawberries and to allow air circulation between the berries.  I’ve had very good luck storing my freshly picked strawberries in clamshell containers that I’ve saved from purchased berries.  Stored properly under optimum conditions, fresh strawberries should last 7 days but their shelf life also depends on how ripe the berries were when purchased or picked.

Berries that have been cut or sliced should be covered and refrigerated if they are not eaten or used within 2 hours of preparation. [3]

For longer term storage, freeze, dry, or preserve (jams and jellies). 

For best quality, strawberries should be preserved on the day they are harvested.  Select berries that are firm, brightly colored, sweet-scented, and have hulls (green caps) attached.  On average, 1 pound of fresh berries yields 1 pint of frozen berries. One pound of fresh berries is approximately 2/3 – 1 quart of fresh berries. A quart container of fresh strawberries is approximately 1½ pounds or 4 cups sliced berries.  Wash the berries as indicated and remove the caps.

Freezing strawberries is quick and easy and perfect for making smoothies, sauces, and jams at a later date.  Frozen berries are also great for baking.  Further, a lot of berries are not needed at any one time to freeze.  There are different methods for freezing—sliced or whole, sugar or no sugar, container or bag—all are acceptable personal choices.  What is important is that the berries are protected from freezer burn.  My favorite method is to spread whole prepared berries on a tray and freeze.  When frozen, remove them from the freezer, package (I like the zipper bags), and quickly return to the freezer.  The fruit pieces remain loose and can be used in whatever quantity is need. 

Drying strawberries reduces the amount of space needed for storage.  Berries can be left whole but dry better if sliced ¼ to ½-inch thick; they can also be pureed for a fruit leather.  A food dehydrator produces the best quality dried strawberries.  Strawberries should not be dried in a microwave oven as they are prone to scorching and burning.  Proper drying temperature is 135⁰ to 140⁰F. The amount of time it takes to dry strawberries depends on their initial moisture content, the volume being dried, the size and thickness, humidity of the ambient air, and the dehydrator. Berries are dry when they are pliable but not sticky or tacky.  Cool the dried berries thoroughly and package quickly.  Dried strawberries can be rehydrated.  I like themas a snack food; they can also be added to yogurt and cereal.  For additional information on drying strawberries, the National Center for Home Food Preservation has a publication, Drying Fruits and Vegetables.

Preserving strawberries in the form of jams, jellies or fruit spreads are rewarding ways to use ripe strawberries.  Preserves made with commercial pectin products are quick and easy to do; package directions should be carefully followed for success.  Jam can also be made without added pectin.  A good recipe can be found at the National Center for Home Food Preservation.  Freezer jam is another option.  It is made with a modified pectin as freezer jams do not require cooking.  Freezer jam tastes more like fresh strawberries.

Enjoy those succulent strawberries while at their prime!

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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