Put down that martini and pick up a sautée pan. Yes, juniper berries are most well-known as a flavoring in gin (derived from the French “genievre,” which means juniper). But this foragable, dark blue berry can offer a kick of pungent pepper to all kinds of dishes, not just drinks. Its flavor notes include pine and citrus, and it’s been compared to rosemary in terms of its strong, herbaceous overtones (Some naysayers talk about “turpentine,” but you’ll have to decide that for yourself.)
The berries are used in cuisines that span the globe and are well-known as a flavoring in Northern European dishes, especially from Scandinavia, Germany and the Alsace region of France. But they’re also a staple of indigenous cooking in North America, as exemplified by The Sioux Chef, Sean Sherman, and other Native American chefs (see Sherman’s recipe below).
Savory or sweet
If you’d like to start using the berries right away, just toss a few into your next pot of chili or stew and notice the deeply complex layers they add to a dish. Lightly toasted, they can be used as a garnish for a finished dish. For a sauce or side dish, add the berries along with apples or prunes, which will bring out their citrus notes. And, of course, these berries are a natural partner for sautéed red cabbage or sauerkraut.
When rich or gamey meats are on the menu, include juniper berries to offer a peppery balance to cuts of lamb, duck, venison, wild boar or pork. But these berries are nothing if not versatile. As much as they complement the flavor of red meats, they’re also a natural for curing fresh fish. Many chefs use ground dried juniper berries as one of the key ingredients in a curing mix for seared salmon.
They also can be a standout ingredient in your dessert offerings. Consider using them in jams, pies, cakes or sorbet. Add a touch of lime to the recipe, and you’ve got a gin and tonic flavor combination that’s bracing and refreshing.
Be sure you’re dealing with an expert if you’re getting fresh juniper berries from a forager. There are about 60 species of juniper found around the world, but the only one that’s edible is the common juniper (Juniperus communis), a low shrub that’s hardy in USDA zones 2 through 6 and that likes to grow in rocky soils, often at the edges of cliffs. Varieties like California juniper (Juniperus californica) yield berries, too, but they’re not only bitter-tasting, they’re poisonous. Once you have the real thing in hand, however, you’ll find plenty of uses for this versatile, delicious ingredient.