How often does one think of juniper as a locally grown, seasonal spice—fresh and blue, and sweetly resinous? And how often do most people use juniper in the kitchen, anyway? Juniperus virginiana, native to much of the US and parts of Canada, changed the way I think about juniper, and its fresh flavor brought a new dimension to my cooking life, where I deploy it most in the cold months, but enjoy using it year-round. When you come upon a tree, pop a couple of the berries (more about that nomenclature, later) and give them a gentle chew. They’re a little sugary, very bright, a touch pine-y, and a lot gin-y (think Gordon’s or Bombay Sapphire). They’re good.
Fresh juniper’s vital and fragrant taste is incomparably better than the drier, dustier version we buy in a store.
Photography by Marie Viljoen.
The juniper in question is commonly known as eastern red cedar. The trees are often used in city landscaping because of their tolerance of horticultural neglect, but they also enjoy a wide natural distribution, pretty much from Nova Scotia to Florida, with a deep sortie into the hinterland. They are exceptionally cold-hardy, from USDA growing zones 2 through 9. Water-wise and drought-tolerant, they require full sun (six hours-plus) and excellent drainage. If you’re planting for fruit, you’d need a female tree, and hope that a male lives within pollen-shedding range.
Despite that common name, these trees are not cedars, botanically speaking (those would be Cedrus, belonging to the Pinacea family—pines). Junipers are the genus Juniperus, in the Cupressaceae family, which—wait for it—is known as the cyprus family. It is worth being aware of this semantic murk so that you head for the correct tree, in print, online, or at a nursery.
So, yes: Juniper berries (which are not berries) come from a tree called cedar!
When they turn blue (sometimes coated in a white bloom), juniper “berries” are ready to eat. They taste like intense juniper candy (birds agree and are the tree’s main dispersal agents). Male juniper trees produce tiny, golden seed cones that release clouds of pollen in late winter (it is a flavorful ingredient in its own right—and yes, it’s a major sinus irritant).
Never be tempted to eat a handful of juniper at a time (although, why would you?); it is meant to be used in small doses, like most spices, or it can be toxic. The fruit and foliage (which is very aromatic, too) have a long history of use in Native American medicine.
There are enough juniper species to cover the country, though each varies in flavor: Juniperus communis—common juniper—has a very broad range (and includes Eurasia), but some of its populations Stateside are threatened and even endangered. J. californica and J. occidentalis occur on the West Coast, and the Southwest hosts a slew of junipers in its famous piñon-juniper biome (and also often referred to as cedar or cedar berries), including J. osteosperma, J. grandis, J. monosperma. The Rockies? J. scopulorum.
There is a native juniper for everybody.
Caution: J. sabina (known as savin juniper) is reported to be toxic and an abortifacient. I have tasted it, and the flavor is horrible—not something I would willingly eat. It is an introduced juniper and is sold in the nursery trade, for its low-growing, sprawling habit. I think it’s likely that any juniper munched by the cupful will make you sick. Most studies I’ve read that deliver a toxic verdict include subjecting unfortunate laboratory animals to very high concentrations of the plant, or analyze what happened to browsing animals after they ingested a great deal. These are not amounts humans would ever consume normally.
I use juniper in some predictable ways: In slow-cooked, wintery dishes like borscht and braised red cabbage, in Nordic meatball sauces, and in dishes featuring duck. But it is a surprisingly versatile spice:
Taste the juniper before you collect it. Eastern red cedar “berries” and other edible junipers should be pleasantly resinous and slightly sweet. Collect it from fall through winter and into early spring. I store juniper in a jar without any special drying. It remains flavorful for over a year. For making syrups and infusions, I grind the juniper whole, wiping the spice grinder as soon as it has been used, as the resin tends to gum up the blades.
Sauerkraut with Juniper
- 1 medium head of red cabbage (about 2 lbs)
- 1 Tablespoon sugar
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 2 teaspoons crushed juniper
- 1 Tablespoon table salt
- 4 cups water
Cut the cabbage thinly and place it in a large bowl. Add the sugar and the salt and massage the cabbage well, squeezing the leaves as you work. Add the juniper and turn the cabbage again to distribute the spice. Pack the cabbage into a clean 6-cup glass jar and cover. Weigh the cabbage down with a fermentation or pickle weight (I use a boiled beach pebble). Close the jar loosely.
If the exuded juices do not cover the cabbage within four hours, pour in enough brine to cover and close loosely with a lid. (Too tight and gas building up could cause an unwanted cabbage-bomb.)
After 2 to 3 days you will notice bubbles rising to the surface of the liquid. Fermentation is happening. I leave my cabbage for about 10 days at moderate room temperature (below 72 degrees), but this is on the short side. Taste it occasionally to see what you think of the flavor, which evolves. Once it is to your liking transfer the sauerkraut to the fridge to slow down the fermentation process.
To use: Atop salads; stuffed into pita pockets with feta-style cheeses or falafel; wrapped it in summer rolls; layered in tacos; warmed as a side dish, with smoky sausages or mustard-dressed potatoes; or slow-cooked for sweet-and-sour style braised cabbage.
For more on spices and herbs, see:
- Papalo: Herb of the Americas
- Common Fennel: It’s All About the Seeds
- Summer Savory: The Herb Popular Everywhere but Here