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What the Heck Do I Do With Juniper Berries?

Botanically speaking, they are female seed cones. But culinarily, the dark violet orbs look and taste enough like berries to deserve the name

Juniper berries. Image courtesy of Janellie

About a year ago I went a little crazy in a specialty spice store and picked up all kinds of exotic spices to try. Since then I’ve been slowly working through them, trying to figure what the heck to make with them. I’ve had better luck with some (galangal) than others (annatto). Since their freshness is probably slipping away, it was time to try one of the last remaining unopened packages on my shelf: juniper berries.

What are they?

Botanically speaking, the dark little berries of juniper trees—which are conifers—are female seed cones, not true berries. But we’re speaking culinarily, in which case the dark violet orbs look and taste enough like berries to deserve the name. Dried juniper berries (or fresh ones, when they are available) are used as a flavoring in Northern European cuisine, especially in Scandinavia, Germany and the Alsace region of France. Americans are most likely to have encountered juniper in gin, the liquor that gets its name from the Dutch or French word for juniper.

Where do they come from?

The juniper berries used in food and drink usually come from the species Juniperus communis, which grows throughout the Northern Hemisphere, as far north as the Arctic.

What do they taste like?

If you’ve ever tried gin you’ll have a fair idea of what juniper berries taste like, although the ones used for cooking are riper. They have a slightly piney flavor with a touch of both fruitiness and pepperiness.

What the heck do I do with them?

I tried them in a chicken dish where I added both too much juniper and too much thyme, and the flavor was a little overpowering. Consequently, I didn’t eat much, which was probably a good thing—it was only after the fact that I read that pregnant women (which I am) should avoid juniper because it can cause uterine contractions. Luckily, I already had a doctor appointment scheduled the next day.

But if you are not pregnant and you use them sparingly, you may want to try juniper in game dishes, one of the spice’s most common uses. Pairing them with prunes over roast duck, as in a recipe from Bon Appétit magazine, sounds like it would make for a nice balance. Jamie Oliver stews the berries with venison, as both the Navajo and British did in days of yore.

Juniper berries are a common ingredient in Germanic food. In Alsace, a French province bordering Germany, choucroute garnie is a hot sauerkraut dish with sausage and other meats that’s especially popular in winter. Jacques Pépin shared a simplified version using store-bought sauerkraut in Food & Wine magazine.

As for me, I’ll be keeping my remaining juniper berries on the shelf until I’m ready to have contractions.

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About Lisa Bramen
Lisa Bramen

Lisa Bramen was a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.com's Food and Think blog. She is based in northern New York and is also an associate editor at Adirondack Life magazine.

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