Produce Pete: Jersey Blueberries

Local fruit and vegetable expert "Produce Pete" explores the beauty of a quintessential Jersey fruit.

Jersey blueberries. Photo courtesy of Susan Bloom

I love blueberries, which are a quintessential part of the Garden State’s produce basket every summer. Jersey blues usually come on the scene in mid-June, with heavy volume starting in late June or at the very beginning of July. With this year’s very cool spring, however, local blueberries are a little later than usual, which serves as a great reminder that Mother Nature ultimately has the last say!

Harvested largely in Atlantic and Burlington counties—especially in the towns of Hammonton (long referred to as “the blueberry capital of the world”) and Vineland—New Jersey is the nation’s fifth largest producer of blueberries behind Washington, Georgia, Michigan and Oregon. Though blueberries have a very short season (only cherries and apricots are shorter), a NJ Department of Agriculture report confirmed that the Garden State produced a whopping 50-60 million pounds of blueberries valued at $60-$80 million in 2019, all cultivated on less than 9,000 acres! This year might see slightly reduced production levels based on weather conditions.

Low in calories and packed with vitamin C, blueberries are considered one of the best sources of antioxidants, which are believed to help protect against cancer, reverse the effects of aging, and lower blood pressure. Check out pickyourown.org for a list of pick-your-own farms by county that may offer blueberry opportunities, or simply go to your local supermarket or farmers market to enjoy the best of Jersey blueberries this season.

The Backstory on Jersey Blues

While most fruits and vegetables originated in Asia or Europe, blueberries are strictly a specialty of North America, which still produces an overwhelming majority of the world’s crop. In produce markets, blueberries come in two varieties: wild and cultivated. The wild ones are quite small and tart, while the cultivated varieties are bigger, sweeter and have more flavor. Blueberries grow in clusters at the top of the bush; new cultivators grow high off the ground and these berries can be picked by machine, which means that while they’re in season, they’re in bountiful supply.

The first blueberries of the season, hailing from Florida, show up on the market at the beginning of May, but I don’t think they’re as good as those from states a little farther north. Good berries from the Carolinas start appearing in late May. Late in June, a huge New Jersey crop comes in, and in July berries from Oregon, Washington, Michigan and Massachusetts arrive. In August we’ll see crops from Maine, and in late August, berries from British Columbia. Although it’s always best to buy local produce, blueberries stand up to shipping much better than other berries, primarily because they’re small, round, and pack compactly.

A bin of fresh, just-picked blueberries at Variety Farms in Hammonton. Photo courtesy of David Berger/Variety Farms

A Farmer’s Eye View

David Berger, sales representative and farmer at Variety Farms in Hammonton, one of a number of farms that grow blueberries for Diamond Blueberry, knows a thing or two about Jersey blues. In operation since the 1950s, “Variety Farms produces over six million pounds of blueberries annually across 700 acres, yielding over 8,500 pounds per acre,” Berger said. “They grow on a bush that’s similar-looking to an azalea but bigger, some of which are 50-60 years old.”

According to Berger, “blueberry harvesting is very manual labor that’s often done by hand because pods of berries ripen on bushes at different times. Every 8-10 days you’re ‘making a round’ and can revisit each bush 3-4 times per season to fully harvest all of its berries.”

While frost, fungus, and pests can be problematic to blueberry crops, so can variable weather conditions, which impacted the start of this year’s season. “Our wet, cool spring definitely delayed things this year and our crop is probably about eight days late,” Berger said of New Jersey blueberry season, which is now underway and will run through early-to-mid August. But he believes that the results speak for themselves. “Our acidic soil gives blueberries their explosive, fruity flavor, which is way better than anywhere else in the U.S.,” he raved, noting that he loves eating fresh blueberries with his yogurt every morning. “While the elements can make things challenging, there’s nothing like finally seeing those blueberries hanging on the bush—it really gets your heart pumping!” he confirmed.

Selection, Storage, and Preparation

To get the best value for your money, try to buy local berries at the top of their yield and eat your fill while they’re in season. Size isn’t an indicator of maturity, but color is, so look for firm, plump, dry, deep blue berries; a paler, reddish-purple or green color is usually an indication that the berry isn’t ripe. A dusty bloom on the outside of the blueberry is nature’s way of protecting it from the sun and is an excellent sign of freshness. That bloom will disappear 7-8 days after harvest, but it’s not something that will wash off in cold water. When selecting, be sure that the container isn’t wet underneath, which is an indication of overripe, ruined fruit, while dehydrated, wrinkled fruit indicates that the berries have been stored too long.

Fresh blueberries will keep unrefrigerated for two days and for up to 10 days in your refrigerator and are great in salads, smoothies, fruit compotes, and fruit and cheese platters as well as paired with ice cream, yogurt, or other dairy options. If you’re not going to eat them raw or fold them into baked/cooked items like pies and pancakes, you can freeze them just as they come from the market—wrap the whole package and stick it in the freezer. The secret to successful freezing is to use berries that are unwashed and completely dry before popping them into the freezer. Fully cover the blueberry containers with plastic wrap or a resealable plastic bag or transfer the berries to an airtight plastic bag to freeze them, or else arrange dry berries in a single layer on a cookie sheet to freeze them and then transfer them to plastic bags or containers once they’re frozen. As they defrost, blueberries lose their firm consistency, but they’ll still stay sweet. You can use them semi-frozen in fresh fruit salads or bake with them.

In fact, I hope you’ll try my wife Bette’s delicious blueberry muffin recipe. It’s a favorite in our household and perfect for the season!

Blueberries growing in a cluster on a bush at Variety Farms in Hammonton. Photo courtesy of David Berger/Variety Farms
Produce Pete shares the ins and outs of blueberries with anchorwoman Pat Battle during a recent segment on NBC Weekend Today in New York.Photo courtesy of Pete Napolitano/NBC
Produce Pete displays his wife Bette’s famous blueberry muffins during a recent segment on blueberries on NBC Weekend Today in New York. Photo courtesy of Pete Napolitano/NBC

Bette’s Best Blueberry Muffins

Yields 12 muffins

Ingredients:
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon fine salt
½ cup unsalted butter, softened, plus more for greasing the muffin tin
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
2/3 cup sugar, plus 1 tablespoon for the top of the muffins if desired
2 large eggs, room temperature
½ cup whole milk
1½ cups fresh blueberries, rinsed and dried

Instructions:
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Lightly brush a 12-muffin tin with butter and set aside. Mix the flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl and set aside. In a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or with an electric hand-held mixer in a large bowl, cream the butter, zest, and 2/3 cup of the sugar until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula and add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Remove the bowl from the mixer and, using a rubber spatula, fold the flour in three parts into the butter mixture, alternating with the milk in two parts, until just combined. Fold in the blueberries, taking care not to overmix the batter. Divide the batter evenly into the muffin cups and sprinkle the tops with sugar if desired. Bake until golden brown, about 25 minutes. Cool muffins in the pan on a rack and enjoy!

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