Undoubtedly one of the best days of summer is when the first boxes of local strawberries and other berries pop up at the farmers market — it's up there with the last day of school and the first day at the pool.
But before hauling home those bushels, it's wise to know how to pick the best berries — and what to do with them once you get them home.
Elizabeth Heiskell (aka the Debutante Farmer) shared her best advice on how to choose amazing summer berries and how to store them so they last longer in the fridge.
Heiskell, the author behind the Southern food cookbook "What Can I Bring?," also told TODAY Food how to use berries in smoothies, salads, jams and desserts.
1. Buy local, when possible.
Heiskell said berries, particularly raspberries, are so fragile that "it's a miracle" they're sold in grocery stores. Grocery store berries have often traveled great distances, giving them more time to dry out, bruise and lose flavor. So if you can, get berries from a farmers market, pick your own or go to a supermarket you know receives frequent deliveries of local fruit.
"That farmer is probably going to have picked them that morning," said Heiskell. "Anything that you purchase at the grocery store has traveled for hours." An added bonus is that farmers market vendors will often let you taste before you buy — which is generally frowned upon at the grocery store. You can also ask them when the fruit was picked, said Heiskell. If you want to go really local, you can always grow your own berries. "It's tons of fun with kids because most kids love strawberries," said Heiskell, who has grown strawberries with her children.
2. Give the berries a thorough inspection.
Whether you're buying berries at the farmers market or the grocery store, inspect them carefully before you buy them. Heiskell recommends picking up the box or container of berries and looking at the underside to be sure there is no staining, moisture or mold. If there is a white pad in the berry container (common with raspberries and blackberries at the grocery store), it should be dry and stain-free, too.
At the farmers market (with permission from the vendor), Heiskell said she'll often pour a few berries into her hand so she can inspect the ones underneath. The berries should be plump and their exterior should be dry, but the berries themselves should not be dehydrated. Heiskell said one way to tell that a strawberry is dehydrated is if the seeds are pronounced and sticking out.
3. Store them properly.
"Berries don't like to be next to each other," said Heiskell. "As soon as you get them home, take them out of whatever container they are in." Heiskell suggested lining a rimmed sheet pan or glass dish (such as Pyrex) with paper towels, then spreading the berries out in a single layer on top of the paper towels. Store the container in the refrigerator until you're ready to use the berries.
4. Freeze them for the future.
An added bonus of storing berries in a single layer is that if they are "getting to the end of their life," you can simply transfer the sheet pan to the freezer until the berries are frozen, then transfer the frozen berries into a zip-top bag. "I have a frozen berry bag and just keep throwing them in there," said Heiskell. Freezing is also a great option if you go crazy at the market and can't use all the fruit before it starts to get soft. Slightly overripe fruit makes "incredible" smoothies, too.
5. Wash them just before using.
Berries should not be washed until just before you're going to eat them or cook with them. "When you wash them they start breaking down," Heiskell explained. Gently wash the berries, drain well, then dry between two layers of paper towel (put one layer down, place the berries on top, then gently roll another paper towel over them).
6. Sweeten up underripe berries.
Sometimes even beautiful-looking berries are underripe or not as sweet and juicy as you'd like. If you're dealing with subpar fruit, Heiskell said, "I hate to say it but we are going to add a little sugar." Don't be frightened by "cheffy terms like macerate," said Heiskell, but do go ahead and macerate berries by adding a little sugar and orange juice or zest.
Heiskell likes to use orange juice instead of lemon juice with berries because orange juice's lower acidity and greater sweetness means it will not overpower the flavor of delicate berries. "It is not going to mask the flavor of the berry," she said. "It will cajole any flavor of berry out." She also recommended adding a bit of mint to complement the flavor of berries.
7. Add some heat.
Cooking can improve both underripe and overripe fruit, said Heiskell. "If you are going to cook a berry, whether it is going to be in a pie, jam or syrup, when you add heat, you can go with a berry that's a little underripe or overripe," she said.
Just be sure to taste the fruit (and whatever you're making) to adjust the seasoning accordingly, as you might need more or less sugar depending on the sweetness of the fruit. When Heiskell isn't freezing berries for her berry bag, she'll often use overripe berries to cook up a syrup to add to drinks, make a quick jam or create a simple sauce for ice cream.
8. Mix things up.
"Don't be afraid to mix your fruit," said Heiskell, who said she loves peach and berry cobbler. "If they are growing and in season at the same time, they will taste good together," she added. She also loves mixing strawberries with tomatoes and seasoning them with balsamic vinegar.
Pepper is another great — and surprising — complement to berries, especially if you're using them in a savory dish. Fresh herbs like tarragon and basil are also lovely with summer berries, Heiskell said. (She makes strawberry-basil ice cream.) She also recommended growing your own herbs, so you can experiment with different flavors. "Even if you just have a balcony or a window, try to grow any kind of herbs," she said. "It completely inspires you in your cooking."
9. Keep it simple!
When you have the very best berries (which tend to be harvested in the middle of the growing season), keep things simple. "I love a strawberry shortcake," Heiskell said. "That is always going to be my go-to." But, she added, "I don't think there is anything better than a bowl of mixed berries with whipped cream."