If you don't have a serious berry picker in your Alaska family, you probably live near one. Or work with one. And there's a good chance you may never be the wiser.
Some folks will keep their berry obsession -- a term used out of a healthy respect for the diligence it takes to consistently find hot spots and put in hours to come away with an impressive haul -- to themselves. That avoids the relentless nagging of a neophyte or lazy berry hunters looking for directions. Asking Alaskans to reveal their favorite berry-picking spot is an unspoken social faux pas, right up there with talking politics, religion or asking a woman her age. It's a hard fact of the human condition that people seldom reveal their best berry-producing locations.
Luckily, Alaska has enough berries to go around, and even without the precise coordinates of secret berry nirvanas of the Last Frontier, we've assembled a decent list of places to go.
Berries are prized in Alaska. They're delicious fresh, frozen, dried, or turned into any number of tasty creations: jams, muffins, fruit leather, sauces, and Agutuk (otherwise known as Alaskan/Eskimo ice cream, made from seal oil and berries).
They are also supercharged with antioxidants, nutrients thought to have strong health benefits for humans. For reasons not entirely known, Alaska's wild berries are Goliaths of the antioxidant fruit world. Compared to store-bought berries raised on Outside farms, Alaska wild berries are nearly off the charts.
What follows is a guide to all things berry in Alaska: places to pick, antioxidant levels, and recipes for turning your bucket of goodness into treats to last all year long.
Alaska wildberries tops
Antioxidants work like janitors in your body. They help protect cells from aging and disease by picking up loose oxygen-seeking substances that, left to roam, will ultimately find a healthy cell to deplete. These free- ranging, oxygen-hungry molecules are called free radicals, which are thought to contribute to aging, heart disease, cancer, macular degeneration, and other illnesses.
Fruits and vegetables, particularly dark-colored fruits, generally are good sources of antioxidants. Alaska-grown wild berries are extra potent.
"When we tested the wild berries here in Alaska, they were almost off the charts," explained Julie Cascio with the University of Alaska's Cooperative Extension Service.
A simple taste test will help clue you in to which Alaska berries contain the most antioxidants. That tartness we associate with vitamin C tablets is because of the high acid content, which in turn is often associated with a high antioxidant level, Cascio said. It follows, then, that Alaska's apex antioxidant berry is the lingonberry, also known as a low-brush cranberry. Its trademark taste is a highly concentrated burst of tartness.
According to a 2006 University of Alaska study, lingonberries have nearly eight-and-a-half times the amount of antioxidants as blueberries cultivated in the Lower 48. The comparisons were made using an oxygen radical absorption capacity test, or ORAC. Anything above 40 is considered high. Levels tended to drop somewhat in fruit made into jams and other items adding sugar, heat or more liquid. But levels in dried fruit rose dramatically.
Fortunately, lingonberries can be plentiful in Southcentral Alaska, with nice crops along trails leading to the Little Susitna River, for instance, and near Sheep Mountain Lodge.
Cultivated Lower 48 blueberries scored 24 on the ORAC test. Fresh lingonberries scored 203. Frozen delivered 160, while dried delivered a whopping 820. Bog blueberries scored 77. Frozen, 71. Dried, 420.
If there is a catch, it's this: The test measured the total antioxidant content of fruit, not just the antioxidants that benefit humans. Regardless, while the science is still learned all the effect of antioxidants in the body, plenty of studies have shown that a diet filled with plenty of fruits and vegetables is good for us, Cascio said. And Alaska wild berries pack a wallop.
Here's how they rate on the antioxidant ORAC scale:
Where to pick
There are many places in Alaska to pick berries, some better known than others. Reports in the Southcentral region are that thanks to Alaska's wet, cool, late-starting summer, berry picking season is about three weeks late. Anecdotal reports have varied about how good a berry year it is. Low-lying areas in the Mat-Su north of Wasilla are producing blueberries, but word is that berries aren't as plentiful along the Glenn Highway near Sheep Mountain at Mile 113. Some people suspect a late spring frost interrupted the growing season.
"It seems like people are going to have to really search for berries this year," Cascio said. Anjanette Steer, who runs Sheep Mountain Lodge with husband Zack, agrees with that assessment. "The berry picking is behind schedule and (it) appears to be a below average year," Anjanette said. "Cool weather equals no bees or other insects equals no pollination equals no berries."
But, a spotty turn out in one area doesn't mean it's not worth the hunt. A few reminders before you head out? Watch for animals, make sure you get a good distance away from any roads so the berries you pick aren't soiled with oil-laced road dust, and don't pick on private property.
Crowberries and salmonberries are in season now, while it's still early for blueberries and cranberries.
Wild berry picking spots recommended by the Cooperative Extension Service include Hatcher Pass, Lazy Mountain, Eagle River Valley, Kincaid Park, Prospect Heights in Chugach State Park, Flattop Mountain, Rendezvous Peak, Rabbit Creek, Old Johnson Trail, Indian Valley Trail, Crow Pass road in Girdwood, Crow Pass Trail, and Turnagain Pass.
Arctic Valley is a popular spot for Southcentral pickers. Crowberries are abundant, but blueberry pickers were coming off the trails empty handed Monday. Meanwhile, staff with Chugach National Forest offered these hot spots:
• Salmonberries: They’re ripe right now and can be found near the Crow Pass trailhead.
• Blueberries: Are looking decent in Girdwood and in Cordova off the Copper Highway. And they are getting close to being ripe throughout Prince William Sound.
• Nagoonberries: Should be just about ripe in Portage Valley.
• Low Bush Cranberries: Should be able to be found in Turnagain Pass in late August / Early September.
• High Bush Cranberries: Look for these on the trails in the Kenai Peninsula in late September.
Let's assume you're back from a successful berry-picking trip -- or three. You've got the goods. Now what? What follows are a few of our favorite wildberry recipes. Eat and be healthy.
Akutaq-Alaskan / Eskimo Ice Cream: This is a light, fluffy dessert and recipes vary greatly. Some include fish or meat. Others are strictly berries and fat. The recipe below comes from www.cooks.com:
Soak raisins in hot water. In a bowl, whip the Crisco and water until smooth and creamy. Add sugar and mix well until it dissolves. Add berries and raisins; mix. Chill before serving. Salmonberries, blueberries, raspberries or strawberries may be used.
Low bush cranberries or lingonberries: This recipe comes from the University of Alaska Cooperative Extension Service.
To extract the juice: Combine 4 cups of cleaned lingonberries with 2-1/2 cups water. Crush berries. Bring water to a simmer, cover and simmer for 10 minutes. Strain through a jelly bag or use a colander lined with several layers of cheesecloth. Let the juice drip into a bowl. For clear juice, do not twist or press jelly bag or cheesecloth. For long-term storage, the juice should be canned or frozen.
To make the jam: Sterilize pint or half-pint canning jars for 10 minutes in boiling water. Prepare lids and bands. Open pectin pouch and stand it upright in a cup or glass. Measure juice into a large saucepan. Stir in sugar. Place on high heat; stir constantly and bring to a full rolling boil that cannot be stirred down. Add the liquid pectin and heat again to a full rolling boil. Boil hard for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and quickly skim off foam. Immediately pour jelly into hot canning jars, leaving 1⁄4 inch head space. Wipe jar rims and add prepared two-piece lids. Process 5 minutes in a boiling water bath. Yield: 3 cups.
Blueberry Applesauce Fruit Leather: This recipe comes from the University of Alaska's Cooperative Extension Service.
• Cooked Method: Add 1 cup water to 4 cups blue- berries. Cook until skins have popped. Press through a food mill or sieve. Discard skins and seeds. Yield: 2 cups
• Uncooked Method: Rinse 4 cups blueberries; drain, put in a blender and blend until the consistency of thick puree. Yield: 2 cups
For long-term storage, the puree may be immediately dried as fruit leather or frozen. To freeze, pack puree into rigid containers leaving 1⁄2-inch head space to allow for expansion. Seal and freeze. Canning is not a safe method of preserving puree.
Making Fruit Leather:
• Oven dry: Combine blueberry puree, applesauce and honey. Line a cookie sheet with microwaveable plastic wrap. Spread puree mixture evenly about 1⁄8 to 1⁄4 inch thick over the plastic, but do not push it completely to the sides. Leave a bit of plastic show- ing for easy removal. Dry at 140 degrees for 10 to 18 hours, leaving oven door slightly open so moisture can escape. Test periodically for dryness. The fruit leather is dry when it is pliable and peels easily off the plastic.
• Dehydrator: Lightly oil the plastic tray or spread the puree on parchment paper cut to fit the dryer racks. Do not push the puree completely to the sides. Dry at 140 degrees for about eight hours until evenly dry. It should have a leathery texture. While warm, peel from plastic and roll. Allow to cool and rewrap the roll in plastic. Place the wrapped pieces in a heavy plastic bag or airtight storage container. Leather will keep up to one month in a cool, dry, dark place. For storage up to one year, place tightly wrapped rolls in the freezer.
Triple-Berry Crisp: This triple-berry crisp recipe from Anjanette Steer of Sheep Mountain Lodge is one she uses for a crisp or pie. She suggests combining blueberries, raspberries and strawberries.
In large mixing bowl combine all ingredients. Prepare and roll out a 9 inch pie crust. Fill crust with filling. Cover pie with pie dough and seal. Cut slits in pastry. Crimp edge as desired. Bake at 400 for 25 minutes, bake at 350 until internal temperature reaches 180 degrees. Cool completely before serving.
This recipe comes from the University of Alaska's Cooperative Extension Center.
• Extracting Juice: Combine 4 cups cleaned nagoonberries with 1 cup water. Crush berries. Bring just to a simmer, cover and simmer for 10 minutes. Place in jelly bag or layers of cheesecloth in a colander. Let the juice drip into a bowl. For clear juice, do not twist or press jelly bag or cheesecloth. For long-term stor- age, the juice should be frozen or canned. Yield: 2 cups
• Making the Syrup: Combine nagoonberry and lemon juices and sugar in a saucepan and heat to 160 degrees. Use a candy thermometer; do not boil. The syrup is ready to use over waffles, pancakes, hot biscuits, ice cream and other desserts. Syrup will keep up to six months in the refrigerator without sugaring. For long-term storage: Sterilize pint or half-pint canning jars and prepare lids. Immediately pour hot syrup into hot canning jars, leaving 1⁄4 inch head- space. Wipe jar rims and add prepared two-piece lids. Process five minutes in a boiling water canner. (See below for steps in using a boiling water canner.) Yield: 2 cups
Wild Alaska Blueberry and Raspberry Bars: This recipe comes from Alaska Dispatch food columnist Kirsten Dixon, an award-winning chef who has cooked and lived the past 30 years in the backcountry of Alaska. To learn more about her, visit www.kirstendixon.com.
1. Combine all the ingredients in medium heavy-bottomed saucepan.
2. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for about 45 minutes or until the mixture is thickened. I don’t usually need to mash up small wild berries, but if you are using commercial berries (frozen is fine), you might need to mash the mixture with the back of a wooden spoon into a spreadable consistency.
This is our everyday jam recipe that you can use to make fresh jam for the breakfast table. You can add spices, oranges, vanilla paste, or other favorite flavors if you prefer. Some people add pectin into their jam to make a jelled consistency. I typically don’t do this but if you prefer it, just add in the recommended amount of pectin depending on brand you are using. The cooking time will decrease slightly.
Makes about 6 cups of blueberry jam.
Making cookie dough for blueberry bars:
1. Grease two standard baking sheets.
2. In a large mixing bowl, combine the cooled melted butter and brown sugar. Beat in the eggs and vanilla.
3. In a separate bowl, mix the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. (If you have a flour sifter, it is always great to use it for this recipe so the baking soda and baking powder are well combined).
4. Combine the butter and sugar mixture into the dry ingredients. Stir the combined mixture until it all comes together. At this point, you might have to continue to knead the batter with your hands until it forms a ball.
5. Cover it with plastic wrap and place in the fridge for about an hour. Remove the dough.
6. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Divide the dough into two equal parts.
7. On a lightly floured surface, roll one of the balls of dough into a 12-inch by 12-inch square. Trim the square into three long strips. Move the strips onto the prepared baking sheet.
8. Spread some of the jam down the middle of each strip of dough. Fold one edge of the dough to cover the jam. Fold over the other side. This will create a seam down the middle and form a log shape. Lightly press to seal the seam. Carefully flip the log over so the seam is on the underside (use a wide spatula to help with this). Repeat this process with the additional strip of dough and with the additional ball of dough. You will need two baking sheets to hold six logs.
9. Bake the logs in the center rack of the oven for about 10 minutes, or until they are golden brown. When the logs are cooled, cut them into 1 1/2-inch individual bars.
Makes 36 blueberry bars
Alaska Blackcurrant Brownies: This recipe comes from Alaska Dispatch food columnist Kirsten Dixon, an award-winning chef who has cooked and lived the past 30 years in the backcountry of Alaska. To learn more about her, visit www.kirstendixon.com.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Place the chocolate and the butter in a saucepan over low heat and stir until the mixture is melted and smooth.
Place the brown sugar, cocoa powder, flour, and baking powder into a bowl and mix. Mix in the eggs. Add the melted chocolate mixture to the sugar mixture and combine. Pour the batter into a buttered 9-inch-by-9-inch square cake pan. Sprinkle the blackcurrants over the top of the batter and drizzle with the crème de cassis. Bake for 50 minutes. Allow the brownies to cool completely before cutting out into 2-inch brownies (we always trim away the crusty edges first).
Makes 12 brownies.
Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com