Garden Huckleberry – The Secret to Amazing Pies
If you’ve ever wondered why pies in the South or those from small farming towns across Kansas or Nebraska taste so amazing, this just might be their secret! Garden huckleberries have been used for several generations for their tartness and flavor enhancing qualities in baking and desserts.
Fast-growing, compact plants, usually growing up to 3 feet tall with huge yields of dark purple-black berries all summer long. Each plant can grow 10 – 15 pounds of berries and when established is drought tolerant and almost pest free.
Believed to have evolved in West Africa where it was grown extensively for its greens. Brought to America in the late 17th century and now nativized in parts of the US, especially in the South and in Kansas and Nebraska where Volga Germans started using it when they settled.
Fruits must be pre-cooked, but makes amazing pies, preserves, jams, jellies, compotes, and topping for ice cream. Once cooked the flavors are like the best from blueberries and grapes in a single bite. Berries freeze well for later use.
Garden huckleberries are relatives of tomatoes and peppers, so start seeds at the same time. They prefer similar conditions – rich soil, full sun to partial shade.
Leave all the berries on the plant until just before frost – very few will dry out. This ensures the largest amount of ripe fruit at once. Harvest by clipping berry clusters from limbs with pruning shears, then pick berries off in the kitchen. The berries have the best flavor when they lose their glossy shine and begin to soften a bit.
If you find the flavor to be too tart, pre-cooking them in baking soda helps. Using a non-aluminum gallon-size pot, add 8 cups of berries with enough water to not quite cover the fruit and add heat. As they begin to boil, start stirring and add baking soda a little at a time for a total of 1/3 cup. Green foam will appear as you add the baking soda, watch carefully as it foams quite a bit. Cook for an additional 10 minutes after all the baking soda is added at a low boil. The mixture will continue to foam as it cooks. After cooking, drain and rinse thoroughly with clean water. The berries will still be somewhat hard, but less bitter or tart. Return berries to clean pan, add 1/3 cup water and ½ cup lemon juice and heat to a fast simmer. The mixture should change from green to a royal purple in color – cook for 35 minutes or until the berries are tender – now they are ready to use.
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