The Scalzi Theory of Strawberries

In our front yard we have a very small garden in which we grow strawberries and oregano, and one of the things I really enjoy is for a few months out of the year being able just to step out of my house and have a fresh, tart strawberry whenever I want. The strawberries we grow tend to be small but pack a punch with flavor, enough so that it leads me to what I call the Scalzi Theory of Strawberries, which is:

All strawberries have the same amount of flavor, distributed across their overall volume.

So the very small strawberries I get from my yard and the monstrous fist-sized strawberries you buy at the store have the same overall amount of flavor, it’s just that in the small version it’s concentrated, and in the polyploidal version it’s diluted. That being the case, the small, potent strawberry is usually the way to go (at least, I think so).

I suspect that holds for other types of fruit as well, but it’s especially noticeable with strawberries.

So: In your experience, does my Theory of Strawberries hold up?

56 thoughts on “The Scalzi Theory of Strawberries

  1. IM(H)O all fruit (this is also valid for vegetables) is best left to ripen on the plant and be picked immediately prior to consumption, or picked up and consumed immediately after dropping from its parent.

  2. Not a bad theory. Ripeness plays a part too.

    I suspect that strawberries suffer from the same fate as tomatoes. Most supermarket tomatoes have been bred for getting ripe at the same time, being sturdy, and looking good in the store. The fact that they taste somewhat like a tomato is secondary.

    I think they select for strawberry varietals that look good and stand up to shipment rather than those that taste good. Plus, they probably pick them green and gas them with ethylene to make them look ripe. I don’t know for sure. Tastes that way.

  3. I was a small-scale commercial grower of strawberries (and raspberries) for several years in Northern California (now 30 years ago). I can say that the one overriding quality that every customer (individuals and restaurants alike) wanted in strawberries was perfect appearance (red color, no hint of any softness or blemish). Unless you could get past the appearance first it did not matter how good the fruit tasted.

    From my (the grower) perspective what mattered most (after salability) was anything that lowered production cost. Mostly this translated into lowering labor costs. And this is why almost exclusively the strawberries grown were what was then called June-bearers — meaning all the fruit on a plant came ripe at about the same time (which in much of the USA is June), so that only one harvest pass per plant. You then strung out the harvest season using a number of tricks: early starts of some under plastic, late starts of some by keeping covered with straw, several slightly different varieties that all came into fruit at differing times, and (in my case) by having growing plots at different elevations in the Sierra Nevadas from 2000 feet up to 6500 feet.

    I also had a small orchard of apricot trees. One of the easiest fruits to grow if planted in the right spot (bloom early so north slopes best to avoid late frosts) as have almost no pests. But apricot fruit quality degrades significantly only a few days after picking. Stuff you see in supermarkets has only a small fraction of true taste of a really ripe apricot. But I found you could hardly give them away fully ripe, freshly picked because stores have conditioned most potential customers to reject any fruit that is soft as potentially spoiled.

  4. Yes! My husband bought me some nationally available chocolate covered strawberries- they were huge and beautiful on the outside but the beauty was only skin deep. The inside revealed it was unripe and the sweetness came from a sugar syrup injection. (Even worse, the chocolate was waxy and too sweet.) Bigger is not better.

    Of course, I still love the man. He is sweetness itself, like a perfect berry without all the seeds.

  5. Note that those monstrous fist-sized ones are genetically modified—they are tetraploid—which gives them more size and less flavor.

  6. I think your theory would only (maybe) apply to strawberries from the same plant. But maybe not. I’ll have to eat more strawberries to know for sure. But right now I’m busy testing my theory that cherries are the best fruit on the planet.

    Until cantaloupes are ripe.

    I’ll get to your theory eventually. Thank goodness for seasonal fruit.

  7. Yes! When growing strawberries you’re supposed to water them when they’re flowering, to help the fruit to set, but then water far less once the fruit is formed — to ensure maximum flavour. In my experience (18 years with an allotment) this holds true for courgettes (zucchini) and cucumbers too.

    Other soft fruits don’t seem to follow the same rule, which I assume is because they grow on bushes or canes and are better able to regulate their own water levels.

  8. I find flavour varies. It depends on the strawberry. Some are flavorful. Some taste like sawdust.

    Side note: I had an awesome cider made from strawberries and basil.

  9. After all that time you spent in Fresno, arguably the heart of our agricultural region, and you come up with this?

    No, no, no.

    Strawberries are not uniform in flavor, nor in size, nor are they uniform in pretty much anything else. They are mostly red, and mostly covered in seeds on the outside, but their flavor profile is all over the map. I’ve had huge sweet ones that tasted like they were dipped in sugar (technically they were), and tiny little ones as flavorless as a three day old piece of gum.

    Don’t go to a store to buy strawberries, unless selling produce is their only job. Seriously, someone around you must do organic strawberries justice. Find them, and buy their berries by the bushel when their flavor peaks. Chop them and freeze them and have delicious strawberries year round.

    But I think strawberry season has long passed. Usually they peak late April.

  10. I grow a number of different strawberry varieties in planters on my front wall, and my favourites are always the fruits from the smaller variety plants, the bigger they are the less the taste

    However, for juicing purposes (I make a lot of cordial), the bigger fruits give more juice of reasonable quality

    Basically I’ve always thought exactly the same

  11. But also, sorry, forgot, strawberries start degrading in quality and flavour immediately they’re picked

    Shop bought fruits simply can’t be as nice as home grown, that’s the main reason I picked them to grow in my limited space

  12. My theory is that the closer to home your strawberries were grown, the more flavorful. Local in-season berries are way better than berries picked a thousand miles away.

  13. YMMV, but in San Diego I realized the way to turn small strawberries into large strawberries was to give them more water. With drip irrigation and following instructions I got these little berries more tart than sweet. Watering the hell out of them gave me nice, big juicy berries bursting with flavor. Much better than the supermarket stuff.

  14. I looked at the picture of the strawberry and then the second picture of Athena, the one with the red tones. The colors, the way she is tilting her head and the lobe of the strawberry, all seemed perfectly synchronized such that I thought, if only for one brief moment. “My God! He turned his daughter into a strawberry!’ Than I thought “That’s stupid. He probably just used Photoshop.”

    The really small wild ones have more flavor than the big domestic ones. The theory is correct.

  15. The people at the local farm where we get our strawberries have told us that many of the more flavorful varieties don’t travel well and so are seldom found in stores. Sounds like you may have one of those varieties. Our local berries are often large and flavorful, although not typically as big as the fist -sized ones you sometimes see in the grocery.

  16. I think this is not only true, but kind of verifiably true? I’m pretty sure the flavor in strawberries is primarily in the skin, specifically the pips. If I’m remembering correctly, that means the bulk of the berry is mildly flavored, and the more there is of it, the less flavorant in each bit.

    Purely anecdotally, supermarket strawberries tend to have white centers with no flavor at all, that I generally cut out. Locally-grown (our yard strawberries are too small to get anything from themselves) don’t have the white part. That may be a breed thing, though.

  17. I have long held this to be true for all fruit, having formed the theory when I ate an apple barely the size of a plum, approximately as hard as a diamond, and more delicious than any apple I’ve consumed before or since.

  18. In the case of tomatoes the flavor compounds tend to be constant per plant – the higher yielding varieties distribute the same amount over more fruit.

  19. I’ve gotten fantastic local strawberries. When I went to Paris, a few years ago, the thing that amazed me was the quality of the fruit. I got some little fraises de bois which were wonderful (late July). I grew up with fresh-from the farm produce and that is one thing I miss terribly. (In Egypt). We would get fresh figs, dates, apricots, etc. I miss fresh apricots.

  20. I assume that you are aware of and likely attended the large, local, Troy, Ohio Strawberry festival that just concluded.

  21. No, your theory does not hold up. There is a flaw in your data. This flaw is buying big strawberries at most grocery stores. These come from factory farms where they do weird shit to them to make them big and look good instead of taste good.

    We have a strawberry stand across the main highway from our house. They have strawberries grown like the ones in your home garden. Some are big. Some are small. All have that punch. Many are even sweet. I never buy strawberries in stores that don’t come from local growers (or tomatoes, peaches, nectarines, etc.) Local is better. It has more flavor and more nutrients.

  22. Commercially grown vegetables and fruits have been hybridized over the years to increase size and color—not flavor. In fact, the hybridization process tends to flatten the flavors. This is why many people are into heirloom vegetables, because these are plants that have not been hybridized and therefore retain the original flavors of the fruit-of-old. Non-hybridized fruits and vegetables don’t look as nice as the hybridized ones and certainly aren’t as large, so they don’t look as appetizing. But their flavor is usually quite intense compared to the hybridized versions.

  23. It’s definitely true of radishes–the same amount of hotness per radish, which is why I only want large radishes.
    Small vs. large in strawberries is complicated by commercially grown vs. picked and eaten in your own garden. Everything is tastier when you stand in the garden and eat it, even things you would normally wash, or even cook, if you bought it, like peas, beans, spinach, and corn.

  24. The real reason commercial tomatoes and strawberries are so tasteless is because they are picked green. That is so they will not bruise during shipping. They are sprayed with ethylene gas to give them a ripe looking color.

    Hybridization is mostly used to target a particular timing. The hybrid blueberries grown in Florida are sold as gourmet. The money in them comes from being the first fresh berries on the market.

    Hybrid tomatoes are the only kind that can survive a Florida summer. If they are actually vine ripened they are good tomatoes. Do not trust a vine-ripened sign on grocery store tomatoes.

    To the original question; different types of strawberries have different amounts of sugar. High sugar varieties tend to bruise worse than other types, so do not usually make it to the produce isle of the local grocery. Fruit stands get more of them. Since I live in central Fla.( the winter tomato and strawberry capital of the world) we get to see more of those strawberries that are properly ripened.

  25. The strawberries that most people buy in the store have been selected for uniformity of color and shape and, most critically, for how they survive shipment. Some of them actually taste of strawberry, although not much. Here in the PNW, the most prized strawberries are varieties like Hoods (the world’s best) and Shuksans, berries that are fat, juicy and loaded with flavor. They don’t ship, period. If we sent those to California (or, heaven forbid, Ohio) the customer would end up with a damp and tasty carton with some gooey bits of stem. Some are locally available at higher-end stores, but the real beauties are found at farms and roadside stands. Peak season is, well, now. Once the season is over I quit eating strawberries for the year unless I’ve packed a flat for the freezer.

    Incidentally, infusing Hood strawberries in Campari also works and makes for some grand cocktails.

  26. I had a similar thought about apples a few weeks ago. I used to buy the biggest ones I could find, but in a pinch I bought a bunch that were fist-sized…and damn, those suckers were so much better. Same variety–Envy–but I enjoyed them so much more.

  27. Store-bought strawberries (which are undoubtedly inferior but are most of my experience) do not appear to support this theory. It’s not uncommon for very large strawberries to be intensely flavored throughout, and small strawberries often lack flavor.

  28. Strawberries, like tomatoes, should be local ones, and only in season. I’ve been getting them at the Saturday morning Falls Church Farmers Market until last weekend (the season is now over). The big ones, surprisingly, are just as delicious as the small ones.

    The tomatoes at the market are still hothouse, though dirt-grown, and won’t be worth much until mid-July, when the real field tomatoes come in.. And how good they are will depend on the variety; a lot of commercial breeds, however grow, will be as tasteless as supermarket ones grown in California or Texas.

  29. Somewhat related is Garrison Keillor’s line about commercial tomatoes that “….they strip-mine down south.”

  30. I would add blueberries to this theory. I like blueberries, but they don’t particularly excite me. Then a few years ago I went to Maine, which is famous for its blueberry pies, syrups, etc. Maine berries are maybe half the size of the ones available here (Seattle) and OH MY GOD the flavor!! Definitely more flavor in a smaller package.

    Ever since I look for little tiny ones. But they just don’t have the same zing here. Caveat: I have not gone to the U-Pick-It blueberry fields over on the other side of Lake Washington. Maybe those are better.

  31. AS others have said, first choice is always u-pick for any type of berry; you can guarantee freshness if you’re the one harvesting. Second choice is farmers’ markets where the fruit is locally grown. I’ve picked both blueberries and strawberries in season, and they are far superior to store-bought.

  32. My CSA box this week came with a batch of huge, sweet, delicious strawberries, so your theory doesn’t hold, at least where I live.

  33. I propose eating more strawberries, purely for data collection purposes, of course.

    Seriously, though, I think the theory only holds true for supermarket strawberries. I’ve had giant homegrown ones, the size of my fist, that are just as flavorful per bite as tiny ones.

  34. I have a similar theory about garlic. All cloves are equally pungent, but distribute it over larger or smaller volumes.

    Also, for some reason, however much I use, it’s never enough.

  35. Well, what about the oregano, then? Doesn’t the oregano rate some similar amount of theorising love?

    For the record, oregano is uniformly delightful at all sizes, and the predominant size is always ‘Not as big as it will be tomorrow’, owing to it being a member of the mint family, hence resistant to all threats short of a direct nuclear hit.

    Strawberries can be flavourful in either small/wild or larger/cultivated sizes, ignoring the supermarket mush varieties. Anecdatum I’ve heard asserted: The Romans tried obsessively to breed better strawberries but mostly failed because birds were faster with their strawberry-breeding experiments than were Roman gardeners. Truly successful breeding of the strawberry awaited the development of good bird-deflection netting.

    Already getting excellent tomatoes here in Silicon Valley. Don’t hate me for it (much).

  36. I strongly suspect there’s some sort of odd genetic trait affecting how strawberries taste, similar to the one which makes cilantro taste like soap for some people.

    I have *never* had a strawberry taste “sweet”. Every single one I’ve had, whether store bought or grown on the bushes outside my house, tastes sharp and sour and horrible.

  37. For the record: my parents used to grow strawberries and raspberries for auction. It was a second income: my dad worked in a factory, my mom managed the household and worked the fields whenever she wasn’t cleaning the house or cooking meals. My dad came home from work, changed his kit, went back out again to work in the fields, came back in for dinner. All of us had to help out with the harvesting during the summer school holiday. So while I don’t want to pretend I know a lot about this, I think I do know something about this topic of conversation.

    These days most strawberries that are grown for auction in my country are planted and grown under a glass or plastic canopy to protect them from bad weather and to create a warmer climate, so they grow faster and in a more controlled environment. Strawberry plants are small and grow close to the ground, so you used to have to harvest them while you were sitting on your knees. That’s very bad for the knees, as most strawberry pickers (me, for instance) know from personal experience; you can also accidentally squash a lot of them while sitting (yup, did that too), or not harvest them because you haven’t seen them under all that foliage (guilty as charged). So most industrial producers tend to produce hydroculture-grown strawberries: bags of potting compost filled with one or two strawberry plants, put on waist-high or even chest-high rails, connected to irrigation tubes and computer-managed drip feeds, in mega-sized greenhouses. This system results in a far more certain production for the growers, and a far easier, less time-consuming, way of harvesting the ripe fruits; but the results are watery, flavourless strawberries because the plants only get a small bag of compost, lots of water and some additives. The investment costs run into millions of dollars. Producers get paid by the pound or the kilo. The impetus is always on maximizing yield instead of quality. It adds an extra incentive to go for ‘big’ varieties instead of smaller, tastier ones

    The fact that most strawberries only arrive in supermarkets 24-48 hours after being harvested doesn’t help, either. Strawberries survive only 72 hours, at most.

    There are no better strawberries (or any other fruit or vegetable, for that matter) than the ones that are grown in their natural environment. And if you really, really, really want to max out on the taste, you should cut away about half the fruit while they’re still in the bud. That way your plant gives 100% of its energy to half its usual number of strawberries. Nice side effect: the remaining strawberries tend to be bigger.

    So: yes, I subscribe to our host’s theory, but there are good reasons for industrially grown strawberries’ lack of taste.

  38. We grow an heirloom variety that has been in my wife’s family since the 1920s (we’ve been growing their clones ever since). They’re very picky and not commercially viable at all; too much rain, too little rain, too much this or too little that and you don’t get much, but when they produce they’re the best strawberries I’ve ever had. I think possibly when you breed for sun/shade/rain/drought tolerance you pay for it a little in flavor.
    And yes, we’ve had the same theory of strawberries for decades too.

  39. I don’t know what species of blueberries are grown in the Pacific Northwest, but the ones grown in Maine are actually a different species from the ones primarily grown in North Carolina. Maine grows lowbush blueberries, which tend to be smaller and seedier but have a distinct flavor from highbush blueberries, which are what’s usually sold fresh in grocery stores.

  40. That is the theory behind old growth zinfandel wine. Because the vines are old (over 100 years) their yield is low but the resulting wine is supposed to have more flavor as a result.

  41. With watermelons it’s just the opposite. The pathetic little seedless mutants that are common these days are no match for the old fashioned fruits, those magnificent prolate spheroids, 18 inches on the long axis, that taste like concentrated summer. And really, if you’re not spitting big black seeds across the lawn you’re not getting the full watermelon experience.

  42. I, too, had a similar theory for many years – even accounting for the fact that something eating while still standing in the garden is 10x better than anything at the store. That was until, iirc, I got some chocolate covered strawberries from a small town baker; they were huge and DELICIOUS. I have no idea where she got the strawberries but they were prefect. Maybe Chandler Mountain is the home to awesome strawberries, too, but all anyone talks about are the tomatoes? (A well deserved reputation, even if most of what’s grown now are packing tomatoes. blech.)

  43. Yes. I grew up in rural North Carolina, where both wild plums and wild strawberries could be picked in the pine woods around the house. They were tiny compared to store bought, and had at least as much flavor.

  44. OMG. At a friend’s graduation party during L.A.con II back in ’84, his father’sa Japanese restaurant catered. In addition to all the other glorious food (the teryaki beef was gloooorious), they had strawberries and dipping chocolate. The strawberries were half the size of my fist, but they were sooooooo good! (I’m sure that it was in California was half the battle.)

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