It’s strawberry picking season in Manitoba again. I can’t think of a more enjoyable summer activity, other than the beach, than quietly picking berries.
The strawberry season in our province is short, but oh, so sweet. If you’ve only ever tasted strawberries form the grocery store, you really should make a point of heading out to the many U-pick farm options that are available. The berries are smaller, but the burst of flavour from these little gems is unrivalled by their jumbo supermarket cousins.
Did you know that strawberries are one of the oldest U-pick fruit crops in Manitoba? This year the strawberry season will be starting around July 1 and may run for about four weeks. It’s advised to call the farm you’re thinking of visiting, visit their website or follow them on social media for picking times and rules about how to pick; each farm is different. A few are requesting that you book ahead due to Covid restrictions to promote social distancing guidelines. You may or may not be asked to wear a mask.
Picking days can often be sunny and hot, so bring water, a hat, sunscreen, old shoes or rubber boots. Some farms provide baskets, some farms ask you to bring your own, and some also sell pre-picked baskets. Amenities like washrooms, food trucks and petting zoos might also be offered.
Once you’re assigned a row to pick, start at the beginning, either by bending down or sitting on the ground/straw. Use both your hands to part the leaves (especially in the middle of the row) to ensure you are getting all the ripe berries. Pick only the firm, ripened berries because green ones don’t ripen after they’re picked. Grab the stem just above the berry between the forefinger and thumb, and with a slight twisting motion pull the berry. Don’t grab a strawberry as you will squish the fruit and spoil it. Allow the picked berry to roll into you palm, and repeat the process with each hand until you have three or four berries in each hand. Carefully place (don’t throw) the fruit into your basket
Don’t overfill your basket or pack the berries down or you’ll have squished berries when you get home. To fill a basket of strawberries it can take anywhere from 10 minutes (at the beginning of the season when the berries are bigger) to 45 minutes (at the end of the season when the berries are smaller). Freshly picked strawberries are extremely perishable so it’s recommended that you put them in the fridge or freezer as soon as you get home. They should be eaten within two to three days.
So what do you do with all those strawberries if you aren’t going to devour them immediately? You can cook with them or freeze them for later use. Here are some tips on that.
How to freeze strawberries
There’s a simple trick to freezing berries so they don’t become mushy once they thaw. Strawberries can be frozen whole, sliced or crushed, and with or without sugar.
First, wash your strawberries before freezing but do not soak. Washing will remove any potential mold or bacteria that would cause your strawberries to break down faster.
Freeze whole strawberries in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment paper or plastic wrap. The important trick is to keep the berries separate until they freeze because big clumps of frozen berries will defrost unevenly, making them more prone to turning mushy. Make sure they’re frozen solid before removing them and placing them into smaller storage containers with as little air as possible inside to help prevent freezer burn.
For sweetened strawberries, halve or slice strawberries into a bowl. For each quart of berries, add 1/2 cup sugar and gently stir until sugar is dissolved. Lightly crush berries if desired. Spoon into a freezer container, seal tightly and freeze.
Frozen strawberries can keep in the freezer from eight to twelve months.
No-cook Strawberry Freezer Jam
No-cook jam is well-suited to baking since it hasn’t yet been cooked. If you use this jam in a recipe, like turnovers, for example, you’ll feel you’re enjoying fresh-picked strawberries still warm from the sun, just like the day you picked them!
• 3 cups hulled and sliced strawberries
• 1½ cups granulated sugar
• 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
• 3 tablespoons powdered instant pectin
1. Place the strawberries in a large bowl and mash with a potato masher until desired consistency.
2. Add the sugar and lemon juice and stir to combine. Let stand for 30 minutes at room temperature until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is like liquid.
3. Sprinkle the powdered instant pectin over the strawberry mixture and whisk to combine. Continue to stir until the mixture begins to thicken, about 3 minutes. At first it will only thicken to about the consistency of egg whites, but remember that the jam will continue to gel as it sits.
4. Divide the mixture between 6 (8-ounce) jars, leaving at least 1/4 inch of room at the top of each. Tightly seal the jars and leave at cool room temperature out of direct sunlight for 12 hours. Once the jam is set to its jammy consistency, move the sealed jars to the refrigerator or freezer for long-term storage.
Refrigerate for up to one week or freeze up to a year. Remember that your frozen jam should thaw in the fridge overnight and will need to be used within a week of thawing, so it’s best to thaw one jar at a time.
The Prairie Fruit Growers Association website at www.pfga.com offers a great interactive map of available U-pick farms both in Manitoba (and Saskatchewan) to help you locate a U-pick farm near you. Have fun!!