In the Case of Strawberries, Bigger Is Far From Better

Most strawberries you find in the grocery are big, but they aren’t super flavorful. Usually, the smallest they are, the sweeter. Wild strawberries are naturally smaller and darker, and they taste way better than anything you’d find at a big store. Known as “strawberries of the forest,” the fraises des bois, a type of alpine strawberry, is one of the tastiest.

These tiny ruby gems rarely measure more than half an inch, and they have a texture closer to raspberries than supermarket strawberries. This means they are hard to transport, so you’ll rarely see them for sale anywhere, so they are a true wild berry. They like moist soil and produce a rich harvest from late spring through late summer. If you are lucky to come across plants in the wild, it will probably be in USDA zones 5-9. This means they can tolerate both very cold and hot weather. They’re tough, so if you do want to grow them, you don’t have to be a master gardener.

Why are these tiny, wild strawberries so much sweeter than store-bought? There are a lot of factors, including breeding. The huge strawberries you find at the store a hybrid of a bunch of strawberry types chosen for reasons like color, size, and so on. Most strawberries are a cross between two species: Fragaria chiloensis, a big berry, and F. virginia, which is smaller. Originally, this hybrid was smaller and softer, and more vulnerable to disease. Through selective breeding, the larger, firmer, and stronger strawberry was born, and while those traits don’t necessarily mean blander flavor, that’s kind of what ended up happening. Why not just crossbreed supermarket berries with sweeter wild ones? The genes don’t line up and the offspring ends up sterile.

If you want to taste just how good strawberries can be, stay away from big supermarkets. Instead, head to a farmer’s market or out into the wild. The berries won’t be as reliable as the ones lined up in cartons at the store, but when you are lucky enough to come across some, it’s definitely worth it.