Freshness of Strawberries

We get asked all the time about why the strawberries that people pick up at the local grocery store go bad so fast after purchase.

To understand this you’ll need to learn one rule about strawberries:

#1: For every hour that a strawberry is not between 34 and 40 degrees it looses a days shelf life.
#2 See rule #1

Pretty simple rule, the problem is your grocery store does not follow it.

Everybody has walked into a grocery and seen flats of strawberries sitting out un-refrigerated as part of some ‘buy one get one free deal’, there are two problems with this:

  1.  You have no idea how long those strawberries have been sitting out, it’s probably since the store first opened,
  2. When the display gets too small the store will take these ‘warm’ and ‘aged’ berries back to the refrigerated section of the store, mixing them in with the berries that have been refrigerated the whole time.

Why, when it’s so commonly known that berries are so perishable do the stores do this? That’s easy: no one makes them do otherwise. The growers know they need to be refrigerated, they even go great lengths to keep the berries cold after picking.

Dirty little secret:
If you look inside the plastic clamshells, that most berries come in, you’ll see the growers put a notice to “Keep Refrigerated” on the back side of the label. Since this notice is not on the outside the stores health inspectors can’t make the store refrigerate the fruit.

Date coding:
The plastic clamshells used to hold the berries generally do not have date codes, but the cardboard flats that hold the clamshells they come in are. The date that the berries are picked is usually hidden one of two ways: for the biggest grower the month and day the berries are picked is hidden as the last four digits of a 10 digit number stamped on the side of the cardboard flat. For many of the other growers you’ll see a price type sticker with a mush shorter code. The growers can format the date as “0622” or “2206” for June 22nd.

If you are East coast based you are much more likely to see dates that are more than a week old, since there is a 3 to 4 day truck trip between the California fields and the East coast distribution centers that feed your local stores.

For most of the country and most of the year Strawberries are going to be coming from California. Depending on the weather, time of year and peak need, you may also see strawberries coming from Mexico or Florida. For most varieties you can tell where they were grown by looking at the label on the clamshell.

In order to have a year-round supply: the growers follow the climate for the active fields. They also switch out the varieties of strawberries to match the conditions available.

You can freeze strawberries, but don’t expect them to hold their shape when they thaw. Strawberries are mostly water and when they freeze: the cell walls are broken, so go ahead and freeze the strawberries, use them in smoothies, on ice bream or any other use were you’d mash them up, but don’t expect to be able to use them for dipping or any use were the strawberry needs to maintain it’s shape.

Every few years you’ll hear about freezing in the fields in California or Florida, most of the time the plants themselves are OK but the fruit that was growing was damaged. When this happens the growers go through the fields and remove the damaged fruit, one of the growers refers to this process as ‘throwing down’ the fruit, since the damaged fruit is unusable and the plant will recover faster if the unusable fruit is removed from it.

During the growing season a strawberry plant will have fruit at various stages of development, so unlike other plants that ripen at the same time: the same strawberry plant can produce fruit over a period of months. After a freeze the removal of the damaged fruit allows the undamaged fruit or blossoms to recover faster.

A long stem strawberry plant?
Sorry there is no such thing, the long stem strawberries grow in the same fields as the regular strawberries but are picked separately based on size. Packaging for them is also different, they are kept as a single layer and rest on bubble wrap. Depending on the size of the berries there may only be 12 to 20 berries to a clamshell. Lrge size and uniformity are the key, if a tiny berry was put in the same package, it would boce adround and damage itself and the surrounding fruit. Since appearance of the berries is very important, and a bruised strawberry can bleed into the chocolate: bruised fruit can’t be dipped. The same goes for the un-dipped berries you see on wedding cakes.. a big bruise would ruin the effect.

Strawberries from other states
Strawberries can be grown almost everywhere, but the varieties and relatively short growing season make it unprofitable for the major growers to expand into other states/locations. This is because it’s not just the fields that are involved but the infrastructure, (warehouses, loading docks, special equipment, the people that harvest them…) The growing seasons in California, Florida and Mexico are so much longer than anywhere else close to North America that it’s not profitable for them to grow elsewhere. Occasionally we’ve seen some really nice fruit come from South America but because of the long trip they have a very short shelf life. Many of the local varieties of strawberries also have very soft skins and as a result don’t travel well.

With the rise in fuel costs: flying flats of strawberries around the country gets very expensive very fast, so you’ll probably see the conditions in your local groceries for some time to come.

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