Juniper Berries

Mar 23, 2011 by Alys

Juniper Berries

In a series of posts here on the Eden Community Clubs Blog, we are going to be taking a look of various ingredients, cooking techniques, and different cuisines.  First off let’s take a closer look at an unusual spice that is actually seen in every gin martini, gin and tonic, and sloe gin fizz: juniper berries.

Juniper berries are not actually a fruit.  They are a female seed cone (the kind that would eventually grow new trees, not make pollen) produced by the various species of junipers.  Only some of the species bear edible berries, and these include: Juniperus communis, J. drupacea, J. oxycearus, J. phoenicea, J. deppeana, and J. californica.  Some of the species of juniper bear toxic seed cones, for example Juniperus sabina.  Junipers grow wild just about everywhere, but it is said that the best-tasting berries come from Southern Europe.  They are difficult to pick because, while they are attached to the plant, they are soft and easily crushed, not to mention surrounded by the juniper’s needle-like leaves.

The berries are a light green when young, but they mature to a purple-black over the course of about 18 months, with some species ripening faster than others.  It is the mature berries that are used in cuisine, while the green berries are used to flavor gin, whose name is derived from either the French or the Dutch word for juniper.  When they are immature the flavor profile of juniper berries is described as piney and resinous, and as they mature they also pick up notes of “green fresh” and citrusy notes.

In cooking they are usually used to flavor meat dishes, such as wild birds and game, or pork, and more earthy vegetables such as carrots, potatoes, and cabbage.  Juniper berries tend to go well with such flavors as: allspice, apple, bacon, black pepper, boar, duck, goose, marjoram, onion, pate, pork, sage, shallot, vermouth, red wine, thyme, and venison.  They can be found in some pastrami or corned beef rubs and are most often associated with Scandinavian and Germanic cuisines.

Gin was first intended as a medication since juniper berries are a diuretic.  The berries were thought to be an appetite stimulant in some cultures and an appetite suppressant in others.  Another herbal cure that was attributed to the juniper berries was as a cure for rheumatism and arthritis.  Currently, juniper berries are being researched as a possible treatment for diet-controlled diabetes, because it causes the pancreas to release insulin.

*Because of the diuretic properties of juniper berries it is unadvisable for people under 12 years old, who are pregnant, who have kidney disease and the elderly to consume juniper berries.  They have also been known to induce labor.

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