A Not-So True Berry
Although it looks like a petite blueberry, the juniper berry is actually a cone. Both of the junipers native to eastern North America, Juniperus communis and Juniperus virginiana, and most juniper species around the world, produce these cones in abundance. Juniperus communis is a low spreading shrub or small coniferous tree found in the wild across the northern hemisphere. Juniperus virginia is also known as Eastern Red Cedar, and grows wild only in eastern North America. Juniper is hardy to zone 3 and the most widely distributed conifer genus in the world.
The juniper “berries” are the female cones that have collapsed scales and a waxy bloom giving them the appearance of a berry. These “berries” take 2 to 3 years to ripen,so at any given time the bush will contain ripe and unripened berries. Each berry contains three to six seeds. Ripe berries are a dark dusky blue, unripened berries are green.
Fun Facts About Juniper
- Junipers grow wild across most of the Northern Hemisphere
- The berries are valued for their volatile oil content
- Mature but green berries are primarily used in the flavoring of gin
- Ripe berries are a dusky blue color
- The berries are a diuretic, they can help relieve water retention, urinary tract infections, and as a detoxifier.
- High in Vitamin C and A
- Birds love them (especially the Cedar Waxwing)
Juniper berries pair particularly well with gamy meat. They do impart a slightly piney flavor to your dish, but it’s more of an after taste and not over-powering. One or two berries will go a long way, so you can use them sparingly in cooking; grind or mash before use. Dried berries available in the spice section of your local supermarket will not have a pungent flavor; drying softens there piney flavor
This week I got an awesome deal on duck from Aldi. Duck is one of those meats that I rarely buy, but do cherish the opportunity to indulge on occasion. While harvesting some greenery from the conifers in my yard to create a Christmas planter, I noticed that the birds left some berries on our enormous Juniper hedge. I gathered a few and went inside to look up a roasted duck recipe that used Juniper berries. (We have never sprayed anything on our junipers since we planted them five or six years ago. Consider this when harvesting anything to eat or use in cooking from your own landscape.)
I ended up tweaking a recipe I found on Epicurious: Roasted Duck with Prunes and Juniper Berries. The recipe incorporated a couple of fresh herbs like thyme and bay. I, of course, look for any reason to throw in Rosemary and I also tossed in some citrus flavor. My harvested Juniper berries were much smaller than what you get in the store, so I used a little more than the recipe called for.
To get the most flavor out of the berries, they need to be mashed or slightly crushed. A mortar and pestle makes this quick work. In the cavity of the duck I inserted more berries, a bay leaf, thyme, rosemary and a clementine peel. Aromatics are a must when roasting a bird; they infuse a subtle flavor into the meat. The recipe also involved making a stock with the Juniper berries, which is then used to baste the duck throughout the cooking process.
How Did it All Taste?
This was the first time I used Juniper berries I harvested for a recipe. The result was great! You do taste the piney flavor of the berries in gravy and on the duck, but it is subtle. The berries also help cut the gamy flavor of the duck and it pairs well with the other herbs and citrus. I did deglaze the pan with wine to get all the flavorful bits incorporated (the recipe did not call for this step), so my gravy had another layer of flavor. If you are planning on harvesting your own Juniper berries, be sure to gather them from a reliable source ( a plant that has not been treated with fungicide or insecticide). Also, be sure to wear long sleeves; Junipers have tiny thorns along its branches and will give your a prickly rash (the plant is highly allergenic) 🙁