Juniper berries, long a standard for adding their unique zing to everything from sauerkraut to gin, can be used to make a brew of aromatic spices perfect for creating mocktails.
“OH, JUNIPER!” said my friend’s Norwegian mother when I told her what my next story was about. “We used to call it genever,” she said. “That’s Dutch for gin. Dutch gin is completely different from the stuff you get here. It came in a ceramic jar . . . We filled the empty clay gin bottles with hot water to stay warm at night.”
My friend’s mom is not the only one to make an instant leap from juniper to gin. The very name gin is derived from the French word for juniper.
“Did you ever use it for seasoning foods, like a spice?” I wanted to know. “Oh sure,” she said, dismissing this other use as something hardly worth mentioning. “They used it to season everything.”
Juniper was once a common substitute for the more expensive pepper. But in certain dishes, juniper offers just the right edge with its unique aroma — piney, woodsy and, yes, vaguely peppery. It’s especially popular with game. But it’s also good with pork, beef and duck, and it’s a standard addition to dishes containing sauerkraut.
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Contemporary cooks have been more playful with juniper, dancing around its association with gin or abandoning it altogether for new associations that sound promising. A quick perusal of the Internet will turn up thousands of recipes for juniper-spiked dishes from Grant Achatz’s formula for “Gin Compressed Rhubarb” served at Alinea in Chicago to Juniper-Braised Berkshire Pork Shoulder served with warm potato salad at Pearl Bar & Dining in Bellevue. And last winter, Calcutta Grill at The Golf Club at Newcastle was serving a Smoked Duck Stew that included juniper-braised cabbage.
Years ago, at a little restaurant on San Juan Island, I served Roast Duckling with Juniper Berries and Fresh Basil, and just the thought of that dish sends the aroma wafting back through neural pathways I haven’t explored since before my kids were born. In those days, I gathered juniper berries from the wild, intending to use them at the restaurant, then chickened out and ordered some from a spice purveyor, unable to ascertain whether the ones I’d gathered were nontoxic. Since then, I’ve learned from my expert friend, Dan Hinkley, that wild, local juniper berries are edible, though he’s not certain what species are harvested for commercial use. What we do know is that the pale green berries we see most often are not ripe.
The “berries” are actually the modified cones of the conifer Juniperus comminus; underripe berries are preferred by gin makers while overripe specimens are gathered for culinary purposes. Green or ripe, according to Harold McGee’s “On Food and Cooking,” the berries have a lot of pinene, the essential oil that gives rosemary its distinctive snap, and they contain some of the same compounds that give citrus fruits their fresh scent. But in riper berries the sharper notes give way to a softer, vegetal aroma.
Lately, I have dabbled with both in a flavorful mocktail based on the various botanical flavorings in gin. Gin is, of course, a distilled spirit, but its character comes from the aromatic elements added after distillation or during a second distillation.
My next trick is to serve it to my friend’s Norwegian mother. If she approves, I know I’m onto something.
Greg Atkinson is a chef instructor at Seattle Culinary Academy. He can be reached at email@example.com. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.
The botanical elements including juniper berries that give gin its distinctive flavor can be steeped in water to produce a kind of tisane or tea for flavoring nonalcoholic drinks. Enjoy it straight up or as a substitute for gin in any cocktail that calls for the real stuff.
1 quart (4 cups) distilled water
1 tablespoon juniper berries
Zest of 1 orange
Zest of 1 lemon
½ cup dried angelica root or 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
12 cardamom pods
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
½ cup sugar
½ cup fresh squeezed lemon juice
1. Put the water in a nonreactive (stainless steel or enamel) saucepan over high heat, cover and bring it to a boil. Drop in the juniper berries, orange zest, lemon zest, angelica root, cardamom pods and coriander seeds and reduce heat to low.
2. Allow the brew to simmer for 10 minutes, then strain out the solids and reserve the liquid.
3. Stir in the sugar and lemon juice and chill. The brew keeps, covered and refrigerated, for at least two weeks.