Native to North America, there are generally three varieties of blueberries grown in the US. Lowbush blueberries (Vaccinium agustifolium) grow only about a foot tall and prefer the cooler climate of Eastern Canada and Maine. They produce a small, intensely flavored berry and have a powdery blue hue. You will often find them referred to as wild blueberries. Most blueberries sold in the supermarket are of the highbush variety (V. corymbosum). Grown mainly on the east coast, the highbush plants can reach 5-10 feet. They produce a berry that is more plump but less intense in flavor than lowbush berries. Rabbiteyes (v. asheii) grow on 15-foot tall bushes and are native to the southeast, and Europe enjoys a tiny, dark blue variety known as bilberries (v. myrtillus).
In the U.S., blueberries were largely picked in the wild until the 1920s, when highbush berries were first cultivated for commercial production in New Jersey. Most commercially gown berries end up in cans for pie filling, but as American eating habits have changed for the better, sales of fresh berries have increased. The big blueberry producing states are New Jersey, North Carolina and Michigan.
Thanks to production in South America, blueberries are available practically year-round, but they are only at their best during the peak season of June and July (Northern Hemisphere).
When buying blueberries, look for firm, plump ones with a deep bluish-purple hue and an almost silvery frost. Avoid berries that are wrinkled, mushy, or green. Check containers for any signs of mold or staining. Reddish blueberries will not be sweet enough to eat, but will be fine for cooking if sugar is added.
When kept dry, blueberries will last for 5 to 6 days in the fridge. It’s best to keep them in vented containers. Those small cardboard crates they are often sold in are ideal.
An easy way to preserve seasonal blueberries is to freeze them. Spread dry berries in a single layer on a large metal sheet pan. Allow plenty of room to avoid clumping. (Berries must be absolutely dry. Do not to wash them before freezing, as this will toughen the skins. You can rinse them after they thaw.) Place the pan in the coldest part of your freezer, and freeze over night. Pour the frozen berries into a dated zip lock freezer bag. They should last 10 months, enough to carry you through to the next season. When you are ready to enjoy some, allow them to thaw in the refrigerator first. Rinse them if necessary, and use as you would fresh berries. It’s best not to re-freeze them.
COOKING WITH BLUEBERRIES
It’s hard to find an ingredient that requires less fuss than these little blue gems. No peeling, slicing or dicing necessary. Simply rinse, dry and toss into salads or on top of a bowel of ice cream or yogurt. For blueberry pancakes, pour batter onto a heated skillet first and then drop several fresh or frozen berries evenly across the top. By the time you flip the cake, their skins will soften and they will begin to spread.
It’s safe to say that baking brings out the best in blueberries. They are perfect for pies, muffins, breads and scones, but nothing beats a little warm blueberry cobbler; especially with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side. To keep fresh berries from sinking in thin batters, dust them with a small amount of flour. When baking with frozen berries, gently fold them into the batter while they are still frozen to prevent color streaking. Batters high in baking soda tend to turn blueberries a greenish color. You can counter this by adding a small amount of lemon juice, but not too much. Acids can turn berries reddish.
Blueberries have a strong affinity for cinnamon, lemon (add some zest to your blueberry pancakes or muffins to bring them to life), peaches and maple syrup. They pair well with nutmeg, melons and almost any form of cultured dairy including sour cream, crème fraiche and yogurt.