Macerated strawberries are as much a part of my dependable cooking technique arsenal as the Nora Ephron vinaigrette, adding a drained jar of tuna fish to freshly cooked rigatoni along with Pecorino, cream, and salt, or standing over the sink as I eat cold salami with my bare hands while my husband is on a work trip. The word itself—maceration—may have lofty connotations (I do hate to “steep”), but in this context, it simply means tossing fruit with sugar, some form of acid, a hint of salt, and letting it sit until it releases its sweet juices. Those juices then mix with the soaking solution to forge a thick syrup excellent for drizzling over ice cream, whipped heavy cream, or an unadorned cake. Macerating strawberries requires no special equipment and produces a peerless form of fresh berries, even if (and don’t tell any cheffy types I said this; I’ll know) your berries aren’t peak-season to begin with.
With that said, let’s dive in.
All batches of macerated strawberries included a pinch of salt.
All strawberries came from pints with the same ripeness, brand, and average size. I measured the volume of the berries to be consistent across batches.
As each batch was macerating, I stirred once every 20 minutes for the first hour, then once an hour thereafter.
I macerated each batch of strawberries in:
- A combination of lemon juice and sugar, at a ratio of: 3 tablespoons sugar and 2 tablespoons lemon juice per 1 ½ cups berries
- A combination of red wine vinegar and sugar, at a ratio of: 3 tablespoons sugar and 2 tablespoons vinegar per 1 ½ cups berries
- Only balsamic vinegar, at a ratio of 2 tablespoons vinegar per 1 ½ cups berries
I measured several factors including flavor, texture, and amount of liquid produced at each of the following time marks:
- After 30 minutes
- After one hour
- After two hours
- After four hours
- After 24 hours
With the 24-hour macerated strawberry batches, I also tested each maceration solution with whole berries, partially crushed berries, and fully crushed berries.
For the lemon juice and red wine vinegar solutions, the strawberry syrup did not become fully (peak) viscous until about the one-hour mark, at which point it became and remained as viscous as it would be at the 24-hour mark, at least to my only lightly discerning eye. (Though, the syrup of the berries marinated for 24 hours had more errant strawberry fragments floating within it, which gave the impression of additional thickness.) I suspect that before the berries had macerated for a full hour, despite stirring, the sugar had not fully dissolved in the acid. The balsamic-marinated berry syrup never thickened.
The flavor of the berries and their syrup was at first—at the 30-minute mark especially—bracing and raw, with a sharp acidic tang that had yet to mellow and meld with the other ingredients. It began to mellow out around the one-hour mark, and really hit its stride (why do I do this? Why do I personify berries?) by the two-hour mark. The flavor of the berries and liquid after 24 hours was transcendent, deep, pert, and almost cherry-like in its depth.
Lemon and sugar was best for dessert berries, while red wine vinegar and sugar was tangy and interesting for savory berries. Balsamic produced supremely intense berries, especially at the 24-hour mark, that would have made for a compelling base for a compote to, say, spoon over cheesy toast, or reduce down and serve with pork.
The amount of liquid that crept out from the berries only increased a bit (a noticeable amount but not a game-changing amount) over time between the one-hour and four-hour mark. So, if you’re going to macerate for less than a day but more than an hour, do so for flavor reasons (deepening and melding) and textural reasons (softening bits of the strawberries for juicy textural contrast).
With the 24-hour macerated strawberry batches, I also tested whole berries versus partially crushed berries, versus fully crushed berries. I found that…
As one might expect, the more crushed the berry, the more juice it released over a set time period, regardless of the macerating solution.
That said, the texture of the fully crushed berries suffered after a full day macerating in the refrigerator, retaining no bite or firmness. Partially crushed berries were the happy medium, releasing much more juice than the whole berries (and materially more than the stray halved-but-uncrushed berries), but still retaining bulbs of firmness within each piece.
Lemon and sugar produced the perkiest, sweetest berries, perfect for a dessert. Fuss with your ratio of sugar and lemon juice and salt based on the ripeness and sweetness of your berries, but for a solid starting point on sub-optimally ripe berries, think about 3 tablespoons sugar and 2 tablespoons lemon juice, plus about ⅛ to ¼ teaspoon of Diamond Crystal kosher salt, per cup and a half of berries.
For macerated berries on the more savory side, as for a summer salad, red wine vinegar and a bit of sugar—less than you’d use for dessert berries—produced a tangy, savory bunch of berries that would have paired delightfully with goat cheese and red onion.
To optimize the release of juice without sacrificing texture, partially crush your berries with a fork, potato masher, or fish spatula before leaving them to macerate, aiming for about ⅔ of the berries to be visibly bruised and indented.
An hour is quite enough time to get ample macerated berry syrup from your strawberries, especially if you’ve partially crushed them. Thirty minutes will do the trick if your schedule is unrelenting, though you may want to heat the macerating liquid slightly at the outset to fully dissolve your sugar, to ensure a more viscous syrup. Twenty-four hours is a delight, and produces the most liquid, though you’ll want to avoid fully crushing your strawberries at the start to avoid an overly soft mush result.
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