Juniper Berries are famous as the primary flavour contributor to gin, however they have many culinary uses that are becoming more appreciated as cooks become aware of their special attributes.
Gin, the alcoholic drink that derives its unique flavour from juniper berries, is named from an adaptation of the Dutch word for juniper, jenever.
Juniper berries take 2 to 3 years to mature. Initially they are hard and pale green, then ripen to blue-black, become fleshy and contain three sticky, hard brown seeds. When dried, the berries remain soft, but if broken open one will find the pith surrounding the seeds is quite friable. The aroma of juniper is immediately reminiscent of English dry gin, with a woody, piney, resinous smell that is somewhat flowery and contains notes of turpentine. The flavour is equally pine-like, spicy, refreshing and savoury, making it an excellent foil for rich, gamey or fatty foods.
Because juniper berries take two to three years to mature, a tree will bear both immature fruits and ready-to-be-harvested blue-black berries at the same time. The best-quality berries are picked by hand when ripe (usually in autumn) as any form of mechanical harvesting will crush these small pulpy spheres, allowing them to dry out and lose much of their flavour.
Juniper berries are at their best when they are still moist and soft to the touch, squashing relatively easily between one’s fingers without crumbling from excessive dryness. It is not unusual for some berries to have a cloudy bloom on their indented, smooth, blue-black skins, and this is a harmless mould. Always wait to crush or grind juniper berries just before you use them, as the volatile component evaporates rapidly once exposed to the air. Juniper berries will have a shelf life of 2 to 3 years when stored correctly.
Juniper berries perform a unique role by contributing as much to the character of food through their freshening ability, as they do by way of their specific taste profile. As well as flavouring a dish, juniper cuts the strong gaminess of game, reduces the fatty effect of duck and pork and removes a perception of stodginess from bread stuffing. For this reason juniper berries are included in recipes for all sorts of game, such as venison, including reindeer in Scandinavia and wild duck in Ireland. They are added to fish and lamb, and blend well with other herbs and spices, especially thyme, sage, oregano, marjoram, bay leaves, allspice and onions and garlic.
Read all about Juniper in The Spice & Herb Bible 3rd Edition by Ian Hemphill with recipes by Kate Hemphill, published by Robert Rose Inc. Toronto, Ontario, Canada.