Strawberries used to be a springtime treat, available for only a few months and treasured. But because we love strawberries so much, growers have turned them into a year-round staple, the parsley of the breakfast plate. Still, at this time of year there is a calling, and if you know what you're doing, you can find strawberries that will remind you of the old days, when they were special.
The trick is to 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: I'm a firm believer that 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.