I haven’t met a homesteader who doesn’t enjoy good food but even the best of us can get into a food rut. Juniper berries are a fun ingredient that will bring your cooking to the next level. Not only is Common Juniper easy to grow and fun to cook with, but the medicinal properties of juniper berries also make this a great plant to add to your homestead. On top of that, there are simple ways you can make money with juniper at the farmers’ market or your online homestead.
Although I will talk about juniper berries, botanically speaking these are not berries. They are modified cones that hold the reproductive seed inside. Juniper is dioecious, meaning there are male and female plants. Male trees form their cones from spring through fall and those cones pollinate the flowers found on the female trees the following year. Those flowers become bluish-black berries that ripen during autumn and winter.
Wild juniper berries, Juniperus virginiana, can be found throughout the central and eastern United States on the eastern red cedar. These berries are smaller and sweeter than those found on Common Juniper and do not have the classic turpentine flavor. If you run across these berries during a fall foraging trip, feel free to eat them right off the tree as you collect them.
Whether foraging in the wild or harvesting from your juniper bushes, begin gathering the berries in fall and continue through winter. Dry the bulk of your harvest for use throughout the year by placing them in a single layer on a tray in a cool, dry place. Gently agitate every other day to prevent mold; once dry, store in a glass jar in a cool, dark place.
You can feel good about cooking with juniper berries not only because of the flavor, but because juniper berries have been used medicinally for centuries, and modern science is backing up these ancient claims. Juniper berries have been used as a diuretic, and as a preventative for arthritis and diabetes. It is also used to treat gastrointestinal and autoimmune disorders. Juniper berries have antibacterial and antiviral properties and are high in antioxidants.
Juniper berries are a delicious addition to fish and meat recipes, especially wild or gamey meat. Simply grind a handful of dried berries and add to a brine or dry rub. The sharp, peppery flavor balances the richness of meat and tames the gaminess in wild meat.
The peppery flavor may lead you to believe that juniper berries are only useful for heavy main dishes, but surprisingly this is not true. Juniper berries can be added to desserts and even into fruit preserves. It is a flavor that really makes your food stand out. To add juniper berries to baked goods, grind two tablespoons of dried berries with ½ cup of sugar. You can use this blend in the recipe or sprinkle it on top of your cookies or pastry as soon as you pull them out of the oven. This pairs best with hearty flavors such as dark chocolate, oats, and nuts.
If you want to add juniper flavor to your preserves, add ¾ teaspoon of ground berries per cup of fruit. It makes a lovely addition to almost any fruit flavor but is especially good with citrus.
Juniper berries are also excellent for fermentation recipes. They are a traditional ingredient in German sauerkraut, which means you will be successful if you add them to any cabbage recipe. You can make a delicious fermented drink from the Balkans, smerka, by placing two cups of whole berries in a pitcher with a quartered lemon. Cover with two quarts of water and cover with cheesecloth. Place in a sunny window and stir daily. In seven days add two tablespoons of sugar and let sit in the window for another week. Strain and store in the refrigerator.
You can also harvest the yeast from the fresh, wild berries to make a natural sourdough starter. Mix one cup of water with one cup of bread flour. Add twelve whole berries and blend the mixture until smooth. Keep in a warm space. After three days, remove half of the batter, keeping the berries in the mix, and replace with equal parts water and flour. For the next three days, remove half the batter and replace it with equal parts water and flour. Once your mixture becomes bubbly, remove the berries and care for the mixture as you do for your regular sourdough starter.
Another great idea, especially with the upcoming holidays, is to use juniper berries to create an alcohol-free mocktail for guests who do not consume alcohol. To make a gin-less gin and tonic, begin by making a juniper simple syrup. Bring one cup of water, one cup of sugar, and one tablespoon of dried juniper berries to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for five minutes, stirring frequently. Remove from heat and let cool completely before transferring to a glass jar and placing in the refrigerator.
Add the juice of ½ a lime to a tall glass with 2 tablespoons of tonic and 1½ tablespoons of juniper simple syrup. Fill the glass with ice and seltzer water. Stir and serve.
The kitchen is not the only place juniper comes in handy. Because juniper is so easy to grow and maintain, it is a great source of craft material. This is one of the easiest plants to grow as a bonsai tree and the evergreen branches are perfect for wreaths; smudge sticks or fire bundles are a big hit at farmers’ markets.
To make a smudge stick/fire bundle, harvest a bundle of branches that are the same approximate size. Tightly tie the bundle at the base with twine or cotton embroidery thread, leaving a two-inch tail. Wrap the twine around the base several times before tightly wrapping up the bundle in a spiral. Make sure you are keeping all the plant material going in one direction. Wrap around the top several times and wrap your way back down to the base. Wrap around the base a few more times before tying the twine tightly to the two-inch tail. Trim the bottom of the bundle and hang to dry. If you make several of these, store them in a large glass jar or ziplock bag.
With so many uses, juniper is a smart addition to your homestead. Buying from a nursery is the simplest way to start, but you can also propagate easily from cuttings. This plant is very hardy – hard to kill, even – so as long as you have it in full sun in a spot with good drainage, your juniper will do fine. Do not plant it too close to your home, as it can become larger than you think. Juniper is extremely drought-resistant; overwatering is absolutely the worst thing you can do to this plant. If you do not have the space for a juniper hedge, this plant does very well in large containers.
As you are considering new skills, products, and plants to add to your homestead, give juniper a try. It is simple to grow, the berries are easy to harvest and store, and you can use them for so many things. Juniper will be a beautiful, functional, and profitable addition to your homestead.