Real Food Encyclopedia | Blueberries
Blueberries are native to North America, although they have botanical relatives around the world. They have been harvested for thousands of years by Native North American tribes, who used the plant as both food and medicine; for many tribes, blueberries (and their cousin huckleberries) were important both culturally and economically. Wild blueberries were first harvested commercially in the 1840s.
Up until the early 1900s, blueberries continued to be primarily foraged, or wild shrubs were transplanted in unsuccessful attempts at cultivation. In New Jersey in 1911, botanist Frederick Colville, in collaboration with Elizabeth Coleman White, the daughter of a New Jersey cranberry farmer, first started experimenting with wild varieties of blueberries in order to create strains more suitable for cultivation; in 1916, Colville published “Directions for Blueberry Culture” in which he described blueberries’ unique soil needs and other cultivation and harvesting information. After that, commercial blueberry growing exploded, eventually expanding to multiple US states and around the world.
Fun Facts about Blueberries:
- Native Americans used blueberries (and their relatives, cranberries) to make pemmican, a mixture of dried, pounded meat, fat and fruit. The fruit was also used to make a number of other Native American dishes, like Sautauthig, a porridge of blueberries and dried corn.
- According to the National Institutes of Health, inhaling the smoke from dried blueberry flowers has been used as a treatment for insanity.
- East Coasters can trek to the “birthplace of the highbush blueberry” in New Jersey’s Whitesbog Village, original home of blueberry pioneer Elizabeth White.
- The blueberry rake — a device for harvesting wild blueberries — was invented in Maine in 1822. (Here is a weirdly trippy video demonstrating the rake in action.)
What to Look for When Buying Blueberries
Blueberries walk the line between tart and sweet, although cultivated varieties are now bred for increasing sweetness and large, plump fruits. Depending on the varietal, the berries may be very small (see: lowbush/wild varieties) or quite large and plump, and the color may vary from sky blue to deep, dusky purple. Wild varieties tend to have a more concentrated blueberry flavor, while cultivated varieties tend to be juicier.
Look for firm, dry, plump blueberries with smooth skin and no shriveled or moldy bits. Pass on greenish or red blueberries — this generally means that they are underripe. Some blueberries may have a faint white powdery coating (called “bloom”) that is naturally occurring and helps to protect the berries.
Sustainability of Blueberries
Unfortunately, domestic blueberries rank a fairly high 16 on the Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, a list EWG created to single out produce with the highest loads of pesticide residues. (Here’s a list of pesticides commonly found on blueberries.) There are some differences in “wild” production and cultivated blueberries, although wild blueberries are not necessarily pesticide-free. One of the largest wild blueberry producers, Wyman’s, was threatened with a lawsuit for aerial pesticide spraying as a violation of federal Clean Water Act (they voluntarily ceased spraying, but still continue to use minimal ground spraying as part of integrated pest management practices).
Blueberries are the quintessential summer fruit — usually coming into the markets starting in June (although Florida residents may see harvests as early as March and April) and peeking through August and early September.
As might be expected, the US and Canada lead the way in blueberry production. In the US, the highbush variety of the fruit is an important commercial crop in Michigan, New Jersey, Georgia, Oregon and Washington. Maine leads in the production of lowbush (“wild”) blueberries.
If you plan to use your blueberries within a day, store them right on the counter. Otherwise, stick them, unwashed, in the fridge in the container they came in. They will keep for up to a week. Take a quick look-through for any damaged berries and remove them before storing — damaged blueberries invite moisture and mold that can quickly ruin an entire container of the fruit.
Cooking with Blueberries
Naturally, blueberries are delicious eaten out of hand, but they also add sweet-tart depth to lots of dishes, both sweet and savory.
On the savory side, blueberries pair deliciously with pork and duck — try a dab of blueberry jam with your next duck dish, or check out these blueberry-glazed pork ribs. Or top grilled chicken with this blueberry-basil salsa. Toss a handful of berries into a green salad; or try gently mixing in some of the fruit with whole grain dishes, like quinoa or wheat berries. Blueberries are also quite delicious with cheese — team up blueberry preserves or fresh berries with goat cheese or harder, strong cheeses like Manchego for a sweet-salty-tangy flavor combo.
But where blueberries really shine is in desserts, their natural acidity providing a welcome counterbalance to baked goods, puddings and other sweet treats. Of course, there are the ubiquitous (but no less awesome) blueberry muffins, pies, cobblers, pancakes and crisps, but don’t forget about blueberry sauce (perfect for topping sundaes), blueberry ice cream (or sorbet), blueberry buckle and blueberry pudding. Blueberries are also awesome in smoothies and in parfaits. Also try subbing dried blueberries for raisins in cookie and other dessert recipes.
- Have you ever baked a batch of blueberry muffins, only to discover that your blueberries have turned green? This is because the pigments in blueberries (primarily anthocyanins) turn green when cooked with alkaline ingredients like baking soda. To correct this problem, add a bit of acid to the mixture, in the form of buttermilk or yogurt, and/or use less baking soda.
If you are a blueberry lover, you’re in luck: the fruit is super easy to preserve in a myriad of ways. Blueberry jam, blueberry syrup and pickled berries are all great ways to preserve your bounty. Blueberries also dry beautifully.
But the easiest way to enjoy blueberries year-round is to freeze them. To do it: pick over the berries for any stems or mushy fruit, wash and thoroughly dry, then place the blueberries on a cookie sheet in a single layer and stick in the freezer. When the fruit is completely frozen, transfer to freezer-proof containers.
Blueberries are one of the world’s healthiest fruits. Not only are they a good source of Vitamin K, Vitamin C and manganese; they are also high in fiber and relatively low in calories. The little blue fruits are naturally rich in polyphenols, antioxidant chemicals that are increasingly linked to big-time health benefits, including in cardiovascular health, brain functioning (including memory) and even cancer prevention.
All parts of the shrub are used in natural medicine, including the leaves and roots. Native American tribes made a tea from blueberry roots that was said to ease the pain of childbirth. Blueberry leaf tea is also very high in antioxidants.