What is Juniper?
Juniper is widely distributed throughout the northern hemisphere and its birthplace is obscure. It is found in Europe, North Africa, North America and northern Asia. The main commercial producers are Hungary and southern Europe, especially Italy.
The berries were known to Greek, Roman and early Arab physicians as a medicinal fruit and are mentioned in the Bible. In the Renaissance, they were recommended against snake bite, and plague and pestilence.
Because of its air-cleansing piney fragrance, the foliage was used as a strewing herb to freshen stale air and the Swiss burned the berries with heating fuel in winter to sanitize stale air. Gin, the alcoholic drink that gets its unique flavour from juniper berries, is named from an adaptation of the Dutch word for juniper, “geneva”.
Initially hard and pale green, juniper berries ripen to blue-black, become fleshy and contain three sticky, hard, brown seeds. When dried, the berries remain soft but if broken open one will find the pith surrounding the seeds is easily crumbled. Bouquet: Fragrant and flowery, combining the aromas of gin and turpentine. Flavour: Aromatic, bittersweet and piny. Hotness Scale: 1
Preparation and Storage
Juniper berries are at their best when they are still moist and soft to the touch, squashing fairly easily between one’s fingers. It is possible to make a purée from juniper berries or to extract the flavour and aroma by macerating them in hot water, but as all parts are edible and the texture is agreeable, it is usually just as well to use the entire fruit, split or crushed. The berries are quite powerful, one heaped teaspoon of crushed fruits serving for a dish for four people. Store in a cool place in an airtight container.
Juniper berries perform a quite unique role, by contributing as much to the character of food through their ‘freshening’ ability, as they do by way of their specific taste profile.
As well as flavouring a dish, juniper cuts the gaminess of game, reduces the fatty effect of duck and pork and perks up a bread stuffing. The strong hearty flavour of juniper goes well with strong meats, such as game.
Pork chops, roast leg of lamb, veal, rabbit, venison and wild boar are all enlivened with a hint of juniper. Juniper berries blend well with other herbs and spices, especially thyme, sage, oregano, marjoram, bay leaves, allspice and onions and garlic.
One application I am particularly fond of is in a simple chicken casserole, It can effectively be added to wine marinades for meats, and is used with coriander in smoking meat. It seasons pâtés and sauces and in Sweden.
Goulash and Sauerkraut often feature a juniper taste, as do some home-pickled meats like salt beef, salt pork and ham. Generally juniper can well be used in any dish requiring alcohol. Fruit dishes, such as apple tart and pickled peaches, also harmonize with this flavour.
Health Benefits of Juniper
Medicinal preparations involving juniper use the green unripe berries, whose properties are more pronounced than those of the ripe fruits. Juniper berries and leaves are used to support healthy kidney and urinary tract function, and to promote healthy blood pressure.
It is often found in natural formulas designed to promote regularity. Many conditions have been treated with Juniper Berries by several cultures, including gout, warts and skin growths, cancer, upset stomach, and various urinary tract and kidney diseases.
In addition to their use in herbology, the berries have been used as a flavoring agent in gin and luncheon meats. The primary chemical constituents of this herb include essential oil (camphene, cineole, myrcene, pinene, terpinene), sesquiterpenes (cadinene, elemene), flavonoids, glycosides, tannins, podophyllotoxin, and vitamin C.
Today, Juniper Berries are beneficial in treating infections, especially within the urinary tract, bladder, kidneys, and prostate. Their antiseptic properties help remove waste and acidic toxins from the body, stimulating a fighting action against bacterial and yeast infections.
Juniper Berries also help increase the flow of digestive fluids, improving digestion and eliminating gas and stomach cramping. As a diuretic, Juniper Berries eliminate excess water retention contributing to weight loss. Juniper Berries’ anti-inflammatory properties are ideal for relieving pain and inflammation related to rheumatism and arthritis.
In addition, Juniper Berries are beneficial in reducing congestion, as well as treating asthma and colds. Juniper Berries make an excellent antiseptic in conditions such as cystitis. But the essential oil present in this herb is quite stimulating to the kidney nephrons, and so Juniper should be avoided by those suffering from kidney disease.
Substitution for Juniper
A shot of gin may suffice though in most recipes you may simply choose to omit juniper berries instead.
Plant Description and Cultivation
An evergreen coniferous tree of the cypress family. The plant grows wild throughout the northern hemisphere. In Britain, juniper generally reaches about 2m (6ft) in height and is more like a shrub, but in Scandinavia it can reach 33 feet. The leaves are dull green needles, very sharp, arranged in groups of three.
The fruits are green throughout the first two years. Thereafter they ripen every two years, and at different times. Harvest from September to October and the berries must be dried below 35°C (95°F) to retain the essential oil. In the country it can be freely picked, though it is advisable to wear heavy gloves to protect your hands from the juniper’s hostile spikes..
Juniper Berry, Juniper Fruit
German: Wacholder Italian: ginepro
Spanish: enebro, junIpero, nebrina
Indian: dhup, shur (Indian Juniper)