Raspberries 101: Learn the berry basics

Nutrition: Low in calories and high in fiber, raspberries pack a lot of nutrition with almost no fat. One cup of fresh red raspberries contains 52 calories (only 6 from fat). They’re extremely high in vitamin C and full of cancer-fighting, anti-aging antioxidants. Research shows that raspberry flavonoids quercetin and gallic acid help heart health and fight cardiovascular disease.

Selection: Raspberries are picked ripe; they won’t get any riper after harvest. Look for berries that are slightly soft, plump and evenly colored. They should appear to have a soft, hazy gloss. Avoid bruised, dented, moldy or damaged fruit. Overripe raspberries look very soft or mushy. Raspberries naturally have tiny hairs called “styles.” According to berry experts Driscoll’s, these hairs are a natural part of the fruit’s defense mechanism and don’t affect the taste or ripeness of the berries.

Storage: Keep unwashed berries dry and refrigerated; use within two days. If possible, store them in their original packaging or use a shallow container. Remove any damaged or moldy berries that you see, but do not sort through berries. They’ll bruise.

According to raspberry experts, avoid transferring berries to other containers if possible; the less they’re handled, the better. Protect berries from direct sunlight (especially in the car when coming home from the berry patch, farmers market or store).

Preparation: Be gentle. Raspberries are very fragile; handle with extreme care. Wash berries just before using. To wash, place in a colander and submerge two or three times in a sink or large bowl full of cold water. Drain well.

Pick your own: A ripe raspberry easily slips off its core and into your hand without resistance. Try not to pinch the berries as you pick. Carefully place berries in shallow containers in single or double layers; don’t pile them up in a bucket, bowl or box (the bottom berries will be crushed).

Pick berries early in the morning when they’re still cool, but dry. They’ll last longer when refrigerated. Get them cooled as soon as possible.

Know your berries: Raspberries and blackberries are closely related members of the same genus, Rubus. (That also makes them a member of the rose family and cousins to strawberries, apples and plums.) It’s a big genus; Rubus contains more 740 species.

For generations, raspberries and blackberries were known as “brambles.” In recent years, most growers have switched to calling them “cane berries,” because they grow on long thin woody stems called canes. (And to consumers, “brambles” sound like a tangled, messy briar patch.) The canes only last two years. The first year, they sprout and grow. After hardening during winter, the canes bear fruit during their second season. The plant itself can grow several years.

Because they are so closely related, raspberries and blackberries often are interbred. That’s produced such hybrids as boysenberries and loganberries.

Raspberries tend to have less thorns than blackberries, making them a little easier to grow (or at least harvest). Raspberries come in several colors from yellow and gold to purple and black, but red is the most common. Black raspberries actually are a different species than red and have slightly different growing conditions.

In terms of berry popularity, raspberries rank a distant third behind strawberries and blueberries. On average, Americans eat only about 1/3 pound of fresh raspberries per year, according to USDA estimates. Raspberry’s reputation as a heart-healthy “superfood” has increased our appetite for this fruit, but its delicate nature keeps it a luxury.

Not really a berry: Although we call it raspberry, it’s not a true berry (such as grapes or blueberries). Botanically, raspberries are an “aggregate fruit,” clusters of drupelets each containing one seed and arranged around a central core. When picked, raspberries detach from the core, forming a cup-like cavity in the center of each berry. (By contrast, blackberries hold onto their cores when picked.) That lack of core makes raspberries particularly delicate to handle and ship.

Raspberry wine sauce: This quick and full-bodied sauce, adapted from Nicole Routhier’s “Fruit Cookbook,” goes great on ice cream, cheesecake or angel food cake. Cut back on the sugar and it becomes an accompaniment for grilled chicken or pork. In a small saucepan, heat 1/3 cup Zinfandel or other red wine. Add 1/2 cup powdered sugar and 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon. Bring to a boil; reduce heat to low and simmer until syrupy, less than 5 minutes. Remove from heat and gently stir in 1 cup fresh raspberries. Cool, if desired, and serve. Makes 1 cup.

Raspberry vinegar: This vivid red vinegar adds flavor and color to salad dressings or savory sauces. Puree 3 cups fresh raspberries in a food processor. Transfer puree to a large ceramic or glass (not metal) bowl. In a saucepan, bring to a boil 1 cup rice vinegar, white vinegar or white wine vinegar mixed with 1/2 cup water and 1/4 cup white sugar. Reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Pour vinegar mixture over fruit puree in bowl. Stir to combine; let cool. Skim off any foam, then strain the mixture through a fine sieve, pressing to extract juice. Discard seeds and solids. Transfer to a sterilized jar or bottle and seal. Keep refrigerated for up to six months.

Resources The official home of the North American Raspberry & Blackberry Association, this website offers a wealth of raspberry recipes and tips. Among California’s major berry companies, Driscoll’s has hundreds of recipes – including many savory options – for raspberries, strawberries and more.

– Debbie Arrington