Emerging daffodils, fragrant hyacinths, and flowering fruit trees are among the most beautiful signs of early spring. But freshly harvested Alabama strawberries are the tastiest.
We’re talking fragrant fruit that is deep red all the way through—not those bland picked-too-soon strawberries found at the grocery store. These are the kinds of in-season strawberries you gather yourself with the family at a nearby farm, buy at a farmers market, or pick up at a farm stand.
Planted primarily in the fall, the earliest Alabama strawberry crops ripen in March, and hit their peak from mid-April through mid-May, according to the Alabama Farmers Federation. The season varies from south to north through the state, ending by late June near the Tennessee border.
Penton Farms in Chilton County reports that its strawberries are slightly behind schedule this year, after February’s freeze killed early bloomers. It’s been harvesting limited berries for sale at the farm and at The Market at Pepper Place in Birmingham, but kicks off its U-Pick operation on March 26, according to its social media posts.
At U-Pick farms, you’ll find the ripest strawberries at the best prices, generally around $10 a bucket for those you harvest and slightly more if picked by the farm. Lists can be found here or through the state-run marketing cooperative Sweet Grown Alabama.
If you’re concerned about pesticides—strawberries annually top the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG’s) “Dirty Dozen” list of conventionally-grown produce susceptible to lingering pesticide residue due to their porous skin—look for fruit that is certified organic or grown under organic conditions.
Unfortunately, for the second year in a row, the coronavirus pandemic has forced cancellation of the state’s unofficial start of peak strawberry season: the Baldwin County Strawberry Festival, typically held in early April.
But several other communities also celebrate Alabama strawberries with annual festivals. Fetes are set for Calera (April 24), Berry in Fayette County (April 24-25), Ross Bridge Farmers Market in Hoover (April 30), Moulton (April 30-May 1), and Cullman (May 1). Check with the towns’ websites and social media pages for the latest information.
Fresh-picked strawberries provide extra perk to sweets like shortcake, pie, ice cream, frozen fruit pops, smoothies, and preserves. The much-loved strawberry cakes and cupcakes made by Edgar’s Bakery (several locations in Jefferson and Shelby counties, along with Tuscaloosa and Huntsville) have inspired numerous copycat recipes by food bloggers.
You also can trip back in time by making DIY strawberry shrub, a syrupy infusion of ultra-ripe strawberries macerated in vinegar and sweetened with sugar. Traditionally consumed un-spiked as a refresher in the days before homemade ice cubes, fruit shrubs also are great in chilled cocktails.
Store unused strawberries—unwashed—in the refrigerator crisper drawer and leave them completely or mostly unwrapped so they can breathe. One bad berry quickly spoils the whole bunch, so quickly cull.
To freeze, wash and core the fruit (slicing is optional), spread the pieces in a single layer on a baking sheet, and chill until solid. Store tightly wrapped in a resealable plastic freezer bag.
Strawberries are the delicious promise of things to come, the first of a bounty of Alabama vegetables and fruit that will be harvested into the fall. They’re nature’s signal that it’s time to get creative in the kitchen.