Strawberries are a year-round staple in California farmers markets.
Not only have breeders succeeded in tricking the plants into producing berries even in times of the year when they normally wouldn't, our growing regions span the state, from the Imperial Valley north to Watsonville and even beyond.
But we're heading into the sweetest time for Southern California fans, when the local fields are producing at their prime. Still, no matter how ubiquitous they may seem, finding a great berry can be difficult.
How do you find a great strawberry? There are all sorts of little tips and tricks (see below). But the most reliable method is probably the most obvious -- follow the farmer.
Growing great strawberries is a tricky business, dependent not only on all of the normal agricultural attentions, but also on the specific variety (most commercial berries are bland and firm), and weather (strawberries are tremendously sensitive to climate).
But even when those factors all line up, the berries can be less than ideal as strawberry plants cycle between putting their energy into growing fruit and growing foliage. If you get them when they're pushing leaves, the flavor will not be what you're hoping for.
The good news is that it's easy to spot a great berry. First, you'll smell them from yards away. And, of course, taste is irrefutable proof.
How to choose: Perfume is an almost foolproof indicator of great strawberries. Beyond that, look for strawberries that are red from point to top. The green leaves on top should be fresh, not dried out. The berries should be firm and glossy, without any soft spots. Taste to make sure they're all that is promised. And finally, always check the underside of the basket – that's where any signs of breakdown will show up first.
How to store: Great berries should be eaten almost immediately, without refrigerating. But in the real world, we can't always do that, so if you must, refrigerate them in a plastic bag with a paper towel added to absorb any moisture.
How to prepare: Only rinse strawberries just before preparing and then only lightly; gently pat them dry immediately. Also, if you're going to cut them up and sugar them, do that no more than an hour before serving -- the sugar will pull juice from the berries and collapse them.