Believe it or not, strawberries aren’t actually that sweet.
They contain only about one-third of the sugar found in apples, cherries, and pineapple and about half as much as oranges and blueberries.
But when you eat an in-season strawberry, it comes off as quite sweet. How do they do it? It’s all about aroma.
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Aroma Makes Strawberries Taste Sweet
Scientists who study strawberries have identified hundreds of aroma compounds.
Volatile compounds that contribute to that recognizable strawberry aroma consist of furanones, esters, and sulfur compounds. Individually the compounds bring a wide range of aromas, such as caramel, pineapple, and orange blossom—all of which are strongly associated with sweetness in our brains.
When we eat a strawberry, those aroma compounds shoot up a back channel in our throats and into our nasal passages. There we process that information with what’s in our mouths and perceive them as sweeter than their sugar content would suggest.
How Temperature Impacts Strawberry Flavor
Have you ever been to a pick-your-own strawberry farm? The fields are always bursting with strawberry aroma. That’s because strawberries in a sunny field are warm, which makes the berries more aromatic and thus, sweeter tasting.
Volatile aroma compounds have a low boiling point, so just a little heat is enough to coax them out of the fruit and into the air.
And our ability to taste sweetness is temperature dependent. Taste a room temperature strawberry next to one straight from the fridge, and you’ll find the cold one far less enjoyable.
Apply too much heat to strawberries through cooking though, and you quickly drive off a massive amount of aroma. At the same time, the ones that remain in the fruit are often changed. The bottom line is: Cooked strawberry tastes very different from fresh.
How to Make Macerated Strawberries
If you love fresh strawberry flavor but still want to change texture, you have a secret weapon: maceration.
Maceration basically means apply sugar to food and let osmosis and hygroscopy take over. Hygroscopy is the ability of a substance to attract water molecules. And osmosis is the movement of water molecules from a place where there is less soluble material to a place where there is more soluble material.
Apply sugar to strawberries and things start happening: Sugar diffuses into the berry, and at the same time, water from the surface is attracted to the hygroscopic sugar on the outside. As water leaves the berry, the berry collapses. Water collects outside the berry, where it starts to dissolve the excess sugar into a syrup.
The impact is easy and simple to appreciate.
Macerated strawberries are sweeter and more concentrated, and the liquid surrounding them is a sweet, red-tinted strawberry flavored syrup.
What to Do with Macerated Strawberries
Macerated strawberries are the star of many beloved desserts. Here are a few ideas for how to use them.
1. Build a strawberry shortcake
Strawberries and biscuits make for compelling sweet-savory contrast.
Rich and Tender Shortcakes with Strawberries and Whipped CreamFor a light, rich, cakelike biscuit, add an egg and use just enough rich milk to bind the dough.
2. Top a New York cheesecake
Macerated strawberries are a classic accompaniment for this cheesecake’s distinctive burnished top.
Foolproof New York CheesecakeFor the perfect New York slice of cheesecake, we carefully adjusted our oven to achieve a lush texture and a beautiful brown top.
3. Combine with black pepper
This spicy-sweet topping is our favorite way to finish off our Thai basil panna cotta.
Buttermilk-Thai Basil Panna Cotta with Peppery StrawberriesInterested in a luxurious make-ahead dessert that comes together with just a few strokes of a whisk? Read on.
4. Make a mess
An Eton mess, that is. This dessert of meringue, whipped cream, and macerated strawberries is a study in sublime contrasts.
Eton MessSubtle tweaks to the berries, cream, and meringue smarten up Eton's iconic dessert.
Want to learn more about strawberries and how to preserve their flavor? Watch the latest episode of What’s Eating Dan? below.