Cheer up your menu: try fresh blueberries

Betty Wrenn Day - Posted on Aug 18, 2010 - 03:58 PM

They are ready for the picking. Those clusters of tiny green berries hanging from and sometimes hiding in those green-branched bushes have finally turned a beautiful dark blue. Blueberries are here for our enjoyment whether we prefer them raw or cooked. Either way, they offer a culinary experience like no other berry.

Blueberries are flowering shrubs native to North America, eastern Asia and northern Europe. Often confused with huckleberries, they are also known as bilberries, whortleberries and hurtle berries. They have a special pigment which makes them one of few human foods that are a natural blue color.

Photo: Blueberries fresh from the bush are the best. Photo by Betty Wrenn Day

Blueberries fresh from the bush are the best. Photo by Betty Wrenn Day

The American blueberry has had a long history because of its flavor, nutrition and health benefits. Native Americans used these berries, leaves and roots for medicinal purposes. The fruit was used as a fabric dye and, combined with meat, made into a nutritious dried jerky. They taught the early settlers many ways to use the blueberry. One interesting method was drying the blueberries in the sun and then grinding them into a powder. The powder was used to make a pudding called sautrauthig and as a spice rub to season meat.

Blueberries are available in many forms and sizes, including canned, dried, frozen, puréed and fresh. Fresh is what this article is about. They must be ripe when picked as they do not continue to ripen after being harvested.

Keep blueberries in the refrigerator, unwashed, in a container covered with plastic wrap. They should last up to two weeks if freshly picked.

They are great candidates for freezing. If freezing for future cooking, place berries in a rigid covered container with one inch of head space for expansion. If you plan on serving them in the future in their thawed, uncooked state, pack them in a syrup of 3 cups sugar in 4 cups water, seal and freeze. For crushed or puréed blueberries, add 1 to 1½ cups sugar to each quart. Blueberries will keep for a year at 0 degrees F.

Drain, rinse and pat dry canned blueberries before adding to your recipe to prevent the color from bleeding into the final product. When improvising by adding blueberries to a recipe, keep in mind that those recipes which include an alkaline such as baking soda may cause a brownish-green tinge to your recipe because of a chemical reaction. Baking soda is usually included in recipes using an acidic ingredient such as buttermilk or yogurt. Try substituting regular milk for buttermilk and baking powder for the baking soda to avoid discoloration. When using frozen blueberries do not thaw before adding. Blueberries will not bleed their color into your recipe unless their skin is broken. If a recipe calls for a can of blueberries, you can use fresh ones by combining 2½ cups of fresh berries, 1 tablespoon of cornstarch, 1½ teaspoons lemon juice, and 1/8 cup water. Cook until thickened and clear. Cool before using as a substitute.

Not only are blueberries a palate-pleaser, they are also considered a very healthful fruit to eat. They are prized for their antioxidant benefits and as a laxative. Native Americans used blueberries to treat coughs, during childbirth as a relaxant and to treat digestive issues.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, blueberries are grown in 35 states in the United States which produces 95 percent of all blueberries in the world.

NOTE: Facts on blueberries were taken from "Blueberry Cooking Tips and Hints"; "Blueberry History"; National Blueberry Month information, and "Origin and History of Blueberries."

1 pint of blueberries = ¾ pound or 2 cups

1 quart of blueberries = 1½ pounds or 4 cups

1 10-ounce package of frozen blueberries = 1½ cups