Ah, technology. The miracles of modern food storage and transportation mean that supermarkets can now stock “fresh” strawberries from France, blueberries from Chile, and blackberries from Mexico.
Cost and environmental concerns aside, the main problem with these fruits is that they taste like the hardy world travelers they are. These are not the fresh-picked fruits you enjoy from your garden or farmers’ market each summer. These fruits were made for walking, and that’s just what they do.
But come late winter and early spring, the fresh-fruit pickings in the northern hemisphere get slim, and those grapes from South America start to look pretty good. That’s when I abandon the produce section and head for the freezer aisles.
Frozen fruit, unlike its international counterparts, has been picked at the peak of ripeness and then individually quick frozen, locking in freshness and flavor with very little processing. (Due to its long journey around the world to your grocer, international fruits destined for the U.S. must be picked before they’re ripe so they don’t spoil en route.) Freezing does change the texture of fruit, so frozen fruits aren’t ideal for idle snacking, but there are many ways to use them to get a bite of summer all year round.
Some fruits stand up better to freezing than others. Blueberries, for example, which are small and sturdy, are great right from the freezer. They can be baked frozen in muffins and crisps without needing to be thawed and drained first. Raspberries, on the other hand, are so delicate that by the time they’re thawed, they’re pretty much mush, so it’s best to purée them in a dessert sauce or smoothie.
Juicy fruits, like strawberries, peaches, and blackberries, tend to get a bit waterlogged in the freezer and therefore need to be drained before using. The best way to do this is to thaw the fruit in its storage bag (in the fridge or on the counter) and then drain it in a colander or mesh strainer.
The freezing process breaks down the cell walls of the fruit, so once thawed, the fruit will be soft. That’s OK, since the best way to use frozen fruit is to purée it or bake it.
I love to use frozen fruit in pies and crisps. Even drained, the fruit still holds a lot of moisture, so it’s important to use a thickener when you bake it. Cornstarch thickens well, but it needs to be boiled; baking just doesn’t get it hot enough. Flour is also a good thickener, but it adds a dull opaqueness to the resulting liquid. My preferred thickener is quick-cooking tapioca, which, as its name suggests, works quickly without boiling (unlike cornstarch) and leaves fruit juice clear and shiny (unlike flour).
Frozen fruit also works well in ice creams and sorbets, though ironically it still needs to be thawed before using. Large pieces of fruit mixed into an ice cream will freeze solid, so I purée and strain most of the frozen fruit. As a mix-in, I save only a small amount of whole fruit, cut it very small, and soak it in alcohol, which doesn’t freeze and tastes great.
The easiest way to use frozen fruit is to purée it with some sugar and lemon juice for a bright dessert sauce, or coulis, that’s incredibly versatile. Almost any fruit works in this fashion; just be sure to strain the sauce before serving. The sauce is so flavorful that a little bit goes a long way.
I like to add raspberry coulis to lemonade, iced tea, margaritas, and mojitos. It’s also a great way to perk up store-bought desserts: Drizzle some over angel food or pound cake, or over a simple winter fruit salad.
Since I’m one of the laziest chefs I know, the best part of frozen fruits is that they’re always there. I try to freeze as much as I can during the end-of-summer surplus. If you’re a fruit-freezing neophyte like my friend Lauren, who just threw a bag of whole peaches into her freezer last August and now can’t even separate them, follow these simple steps:
If you don’t have any end-of-summer surplus to freeze, supermarket frozen fruit is a great alternative. Like home-frozen fruit, the fruit is frozen when ripe, so it has great flavor. Look for sales at your local market where you can stock up periodically. Then you’ve always got a great crisp, dessert sauce, or ice cream waiting just inside your freezer door.
Cookbook author Keri Fisher (One Cake, One Hundred Desserts) has written for Saveur, Gastronomica, and Cook’s Illustrated. She lives outside Philadelphia with her sister, her husband, and her two sons, and keeps a blog about living in a communal household.
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