Juniper is one of the few original Scandinavian coniferous trees and it's played a culinary role since at least the Viking age, when it was used in making mead. It's still used to flavor alcohol—especially gin—but can do a lot more than just that.
Where to Find It
Juniper thrives on heaths and similarly sandy areas where it resists the elements to grow in patches of green shrubbery or as small, erect trees. It doesn't need much in the way of nutrients, but juniper does require good light, so look for it in wide-open spaces with ample sunshine, and where the wind has free reign.
When to Find It
The berries can be picked year round.
Berries: January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November, December.
How to Spot It
Juniper is an evergreen bush or small tree with very pointy, bluish-green needles that grow in threes in a ring around its branches. The trees can grow up to four or five meters tall and sometimes have several trunks that grow closely together. Depending on how they're shaped by the elements, the trunks may be more horizontal than vertical. The bark is thick, reddish-brown, and on older trees it tends to flake off in large, elongated pieces. Dark blue berries are distributed throughout the branches. In May and June juniper blooms with green or yellow flowers.
How to Pick It
Juniper berries are actually small, meaty cones that have ripened on the branches over the course of several years. The green berries that grow side-by-side with the blue, ripe ones are also cones—they just haven’t ripened yet. Because ripe and unripe berries, intermingle promiscuously with flowers on the same branch, you’ll need to pick by hand.
On the palate
Green juniper berries have a delicate citrus flavor, but the blue, ripe berries taste more like spruce, dill, and mild pepper. They pop in the mouth and are a bit grainy.
Juniper berries have a perfumed scent with notes of turpentine.
Dry juniper berries to preserve their aroma; they’ll become a bit wrinkled, but will still be soft and supple. The skin of the berry has almost no flavor, which is why you usually crush or squeeze it before use.
Juniper berries are powerfully flavored, so incorporate them with caution. You can use fresh or dried juniper berries to season vegetable dishes, with meat (especially venison and poultry), and even in desserts. If you like, you can gring dried juniper berries and add them as a powder to your dish instead of using whole berries, which may be a bit too hard. Slip a small handful of dried juniper berries into your pepper grinder together with black pepper, or mix them in a good oil. You can also use juniper berries to make schnapps.
Store dried juniper berries inside an airtight container and put it in a kitchen cupboard where they'll keep for several months. They will, however, lose their flavor and scent, so use them sooner rather than later.
No equivalent substitutions.
Risk of misidentifying the plant
When seen from a distance, juniper can easily be confused with thuja or cypress, which don't have prickly needles, but short, scale-like leaves that grow densely close to the stem. Each scale has a white spot on the bottom, and overlaps another. Cypress isn't toxic (just inedible), but all parts of the thuja tree contain a poisonous substance called thujone, which you don't want to ingest.