Juniper berries are the key flavoring in gin, which was originally known as jenever ("juniper") and was developed in the Netherlands. Juniper berries were used in cooking and for medicinal purposes in ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, and ancient Rome, and have been found in India and other Asian cultures as well.
Juniper has a wonderfully piney taste with citrus overtones (sometimes compared to rosemary) and is a common ingredient in German food. A well-known Alsatian dish, choucroute garnie, contains sauerkraut with sausage and potatoes, seasoned with pepper and juniper berries.
Other Uses of the Juniper Berry
The juniper berry, in addition to being a popular spice, has long been used in many cultures for its medicinal properties. It's an effective diuretic and is believed to help soothe symptoms of arthritis. Juniper berries have been used both as an appetite stimulant and an appetite suppressant, depending on the culture.
Some Native American tribes have even used juniper berries as a contraceptive. But juniper berries are not recommended for pregnant women since it's believed they may cause uterine contractions.
What the Heck Are Juniper Berries?
Juniper berries aren't actually berries; they're the tiny cones of the juniper bush (a relative of the popular landscaping shrub). Most juniper berries used in recipes come from the species Juniperus communis, a plant that grows in northern climates.
Note that not all juniper berries are edible, so don't go pulling them off a bush unless you're sure they're the safe kind.
Juniper berries are best when they're fresh, so if you can't find a local market that frequently reorders the spice, check online.
How to Prepare Juniper Berries
If you want a strong juniper aroma and flavor to your dish, crushing fresh berries before adding them to a sauce or marinade is the way to go. For a more subtle flavor, you can toast the berries, but be careful not to burn them or they'll taste bitter.
To crush the berries, put a tablespoon or so in a zippered bag and lightly smash them with a meat mallet, hammer or wine bottle. Once they're flattened, dump them on a cutting board and chop them finely with a chef's knife before adding to your dish or marinade.
What to Cook With Juniper Berries
Juniper is commonly used with lamb (or mutton) and is particularly good with venison, wild boar, and even domestic pork. You could even add them to a pot of chili, to give a rustic flavor that complements ground smoked chile peppers. Juniper is also a good flavoring to use with roast duck.
To bring out juniper berries' slight citrus flavor, most recipes call for another fruit such as apples or prunes to be added. You can rub crushed juniper berries into a meat of your choosing before roasting it. Add a little ginger or garlic to the rub for a savory flavor. Or you can stew the berries before marinating or basting the meat with them.