Juniper berries give a clean, woodsy taste (often described as "piney") to a wide variety of dishes. Traditional to Scandinavian and German cooking, juniper is most familiar to Americans as the mysterious fresh taste of gin. A frequent ingredient in game dishes, dried juniper berries enhance hearty pork, lamb, beef, duck and even salmon. Juniper also shows an affinity for cabbage, carrot and other winter-vegetable dishes. Somewhat similar to rosemary in redolence, juniper can be used in small quantities to give familiar dishes a new spark.
Purchase dried or fresh juniper berries in a specialty or gourmet shop. While many kinds of landscape junipers have berries, both the flavor and digestibility of different kinds of juniper berries can vary widely. Some berries are more bitter than spicy. Some cause considerable stomach upset and cramping and should be avoided by young children and anyone with kidney problems. All possess diuretic qualities. Tempting though it may be to harvest juniper berries from your yard, results can range from okay to uneven to uncomfortable.
Observe the quantity of juniper berries specified by your recipe. Juniper flavor is strong, and small amounts are specified for that reason. More onion, a guess at the wine-pour, and opinions about garlic are easily adjusted to personal preference. Use caution with juniper, however, to avoid the easy fault of overwhelming your dish.
Prepare dried juniper berries by crushing them slightly with the blade of a knife. Lay berries on a cutting board, place the knife blade flat over the berries and press down with your fist.
Marinate crushed berries for five to 10 minutes in liquid to reconstitute them. A tablespoon or two of gin, red wine, vinegar, or warm water will soften berries and initiate flavor-release. Add berries and liquid to recipe when specified.
Try traditional recipes before using juniper berries experimentally. (See references for a list of traditional uses for juniper.) Once you have tasted the effect of this seasoning in some old reliables, you will be ready to use juniper in your own creative cooking. Pork roast, beef in red wine, and sauerkraut all make good starts.