This is the year of strawberries. Last year, farmers were scrambling to pick not-quite-right fruit ahead of torrential downpours courtesy of El Niño. The pickings were heavily white-shouldered and disappointing. This year if you do see a peak of white underneath the pinwheel of green foliage on top, chances are it's because someone is rushing to meet demand. The berries are superb and sweet and hitting the peak of the season right now.
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You may notice prices are a touch higher than last year. National bumper crops in 2010 were so huge that farmers in Florida ended up letting whole fields go to rot. The National Berry Report says that California growers picked 7 million more flats of strawberries by this time last year than this year. The flip side is that the quality is so improved from the perfect strawberry weather we've been having that paying a little more is much less painful.
The invention of the flat, a neatly boxed collection of eight quarts of strawberries (that's around 12 lbs.) has driven many a market goer into the welcoming arms of jam making. Unless you are having a strawberry party (a great idea), making several pies, or putting up for the season, stick to this one mantra -- only buy what you can reasonably consume in three to four days. Strawberries don't have a great shelf life, especially when picked at their peak of ripeness. We actually prefer to avoid refrigerating them. But if necessary, it'll extend their eatable life by a few days when kept in cold storage.
There are a few other points to consider. When choosing your fruit, you have the luxury of being selective so choose wisely and inspect the baskets from the bottom to check for signs of spoilage. Ripe berries bruise easily (it's why you see them in shallow baskets and not piled high onto market tables like summer corn) so a little juice in the box is expected. If you see bruising on every berry though, move along and find a gentler hand. Also look for divots, holes, and telltale signs of snacking visitors. And whenever possible, select for even, nearly gem-like red color from tip to shoulder. A good berry's skin will be dry and shiny, but look like it's about ready to burst with juice. And above all, taste and take your time. Ask when and where the fruit was picked.
When you get your berries home, keep them out of the sunlight. Strawberries do not continue to ripen once picked, which is why selecting for fully ripe fruit is important for fresh eating. Also, don't wash your fruits until you are ready to eat them. Water, as previously mentioned, has an adverse effect on the strawberry's ability to stay plump and juicy. Wash them, but don't let them sit in water, and then eat them within the hour for the best flavor.