Fresh blueberries bring greed out into the open at my house. We taste the first berries of the season tentatively, since some will be surprisingly tart, but once the sun brings them to plump, sweet perfection, it’s every man, woman, and child for himself.
I start the season eating the berries out of hand—why alter what nature has perfected by cooking or adding other flavors? A week or two of sublime berries takes the edge off this Puritan ethic, so then I’ll allow myself to use blueberries as an ingredient. Still, I’m careful to choose desserts that bring out the best in blueberries, not hide their flavor.
When I bake with blueberries, I use complementary flavors in ways that won’t overwhelm the berries, and I use these flavors with a light touch. Take my Black & Blueberry Pie: It has lemon in it—a classic flavor accompaniment—but I don’t add any to the berries. Instead I use the tang of both lemon zest and lemon juice to perk up the pastry, which also has the light crunch of cornmeal. It’s not that I don’t love lemon with blueberries—I use it again in my creamy and tangy Blueberry Streusel Bars with Lemon Cream Filling—but lemon juice in an all-fruit pie filling can push blueberries that are naturally balanced between sweet and tart over the edge into sourness.
A few other ingredients are on my “blueberry-friendly” list. In small amounts, warm spices like cinnamon and allspice accentuate rather than compete, enhancing the berries’ richness and fragrance. My Peach & Blueberry Crisp with Spiced-Pecan Topping includes a touch of freshly grated nutmeg, which plays especially nicely with peaches and pecans. Brown sugar tastes great with berries of all kinds; I use it for the streusel and crust of the blueberry bars. And finally, as in the pie, I use citrus zest—this time lime—to add another layer of flavor to Blueberry-Lime Pound Cake; the lime juice goes into a glaze that gives the cake a tangy hit.
Buying & storing blueberries
You can judge some fruit with your nose, but not blueberries. Use your eyes first: Blueberries should have a lovely silvery-white bloom over the dark blue. Look for pints free of small, purplish or greenish immature berries, a sign that they were picked before their peak. Then use the “heft” test: Berries should be plump and heavy. The sure-fire way of judging blueberries is to taste a few, because sweetness is variable even within the same pint.
At home, pick through them, discarding any squishy berries that may turn moldy and infect their healthy neighbors. Store the berries in the coldest part of the refrigerator, but not in a drawer, where it’s too humid. To keep them dry, don’t wash them until you’re ready to use them. I’ve kept fresh-picked blueberries for up to two weeks in an airtight container, although they can lose moisture during the second week and shrink slightly. For baking, this can work in your favor, because the flavor becomes concentrated. After that, it’s time to freeze them. Rinse them in a colander, dry thoroughly on paper towels, and then spread them on rimmed baking sheets in a single layer until frozen solid. Once frozen, they go into plastic storage bags. Voilà…the flavor of summer.