Before you go huckleberry picking, here are some additional tips, and some tools you will want to bring along — in addition to the huckleberry picker:
- Buy and bring an Igloo “lunch box” style mini-ice chest or cooler from their “PlayMate” line, for each person picking – the kind with a handle that snaps shut over the lid when you close the cooler.
Make sure to get a hard-body Playmate, not one of the soft-body models (hmmm, that did not sound quite right…). I like a 7-quart model, as, by the time I pick a gallon and a half, I want to go back to the vehicle and dump my berries in a box, and get a cold drink, do a little braggin’, etc. It also allows the huckleberries to start breathing, as they will tend to “cook” just a bit in the Igloo.
However, if you are a hardcore huckleberry picker, they do make models in the 14 to 16-quart range (3 1/2 to 4 gallons)! They also make smaller versions, just right for a six-pack with ice. You can use that for later, LOL, OR for the younger or smaller pickers on your crew, they might want a carrier of their own, and this lets them feel involved.
The reason to outfit yourself this way, is that huckleberries usually grow on rough – and often steep – ground with lots of vegetation, and it’s easy to trip. If you are compiling your berries in an open-top bucket or pail (with or without a handle) it’s easy to fall and… I can’t tell you how many times I’ve turned the air blue after spilling a bucket of beautiful wild, huckleberries on my way down a steep, tangled hillside. If this happens to you JUST ONCE, the investment in one of the Igloo Playmates is well worth it.
How to know when to dump into your Playmate? Pick until you start getting some huckleberries that want to start rolling back out over the top of the inner divider as you are picking… usually about half full, or 2-3 cups of berries. Grab the Igloo, open the top, turn the picker upside down, and gently pour the huckleberries into the cooler. Close up the Igloo, and go back to picking. Even if the Igloo falls over, your huckleberries are safe!
When your Igloo gets full, you can walk safely and confidently back to the car. If you trip, NO HARM DONE! Your huckleberries (worth their weight in gold), and your picking party’s sensitive hearing, will not be damaged.
- Bring wide or long, shallow cardboard boxes, lined with newsprint, or something similar, to hold the larger volumes of huckleberries until you get them to your kitchen or other location for cleaning and/or freezing.
Many people think that putting the huckleberries directly over ice, or in a closed, tight, cool container, is a good idea. But, most huckleberries (at least, here in Idaho) are picked in the hottest part of the summer, mid-July to mid-August and those tasty little purple rounds are WARM! Sealing them in something airtight for very long, or in direct contact with ice, or against any kind of plastic where they cannot “breath”, will cause them to BLEED PURPLE GOLD! And keeping leaves in with the berries, until you get to your cleaning location, is a very good idea. The leaves act as insulation, and protection from smashing… and even absorb a little moisture if you are picking in the rain, or in the moist morning dew.
Wild huckleberries will actually last several days in an open cardboard box this way (although, you need to keep the boxes in the cool shade… direct sunlight is also damaging to the quality of the huckleberries and will wrinkle them up quickly).
HOW TO CLEAN WILD HUCKLEBERRIES
- There are several methods of washing and cleaning huckleberries. Mostly you want to get out the leaves, a few stems, and occasional insect that got caught up in your picker while you were flailing away (oops, that is, stroking easily and smoothly!). I usually let the berries cool down a couple of hours, then put them in a tall bucket or mixing bowl, and run cool water, gently, over the top. Most of the leaves, bugs, and stems will rise to the top with gentle agitation, and I just scoop out the undesirables, using my fingers much like a rake. Then drain immediately.
I know other people use a sort of screening system, where they actually pour the berries down a chute or board, with flat strips (e.g. popsicle sticks) in parallel rows attached at right angles to the board. Others use any kind of flat, rough surface (e.g. sheet, or wire door screen material) with a slight angle… just enough for the berries to roll, and the leaves and stem to stick. If you are using a cloth, make sure to keep it super taut. Otherwise, as you roll the huckleberries, they will tend to congregate in the middle and form a paunch (kind of like mine!).
The berries at the bottom of this kind of operation are pretty clean. (But may still need a “flush” treatment, in my opinion!)
The fastest way to clean wild huckleberries, bar none, is a sort of combination of the above. You build a long flat frame, with boards or plywood, 6 to 8 FEET long, and maybe two feet wide. Put up some sideboards, as some of those little round berries will fly off the sides if you do not. Cover the interior surface with newsprint, felt, wood blanket, or other soft material with a slightly rough feel. Set the bottom of the frame in a wide bucket. (A clean kitty litter box works pretty well… but put something soft in the bottom to reduce bouncing.)
Pour some handfuls of berries and leaves at the other end of the frame, then lift that end, until the huckleberries roll easily, and the leaves do not. Brace with some kind of support, to keep that end of the frame elevated.
You will pour berries in bunches, running your fingers UPHILL, through any jams (excuse the pun) and you will get lots of them. After a while, you will get a rhythm. Periodically, you will need to pull off the cloth and shake it, and perhaps turn it over. Not only does the material get most of the leaves and foreign materials, but will absorb moisture, and some of the juice, that would otherwise make your berries sticky.
Typically, some of the larger leaves and stems are most likely to make the full downhill trip with the berries, and these are easier to pull out by hand. But you will get some variety. Typically, you will run the berries down the slide twice to get a really clean batch of beautiful huckleberries. Then you still might want to rinse them (or not), depending upon what you plan to do with them.
Note: if you are selling berries to a commercial processor that buys by the pound, they may pay less for “washed” huckleberries, under the assumption that part of the weight is now water. That might be true, but cleaner is better in MY wild huckleberry goodies!! Huckleberry-Aphid Pie probably would not taste that well.
- I strongly recommend the “cookie sheet” method of freezing your huckleberries. Although the extra protein is appreciated!
THE COOKIE SHEET FREEZING METHOD!
Once the berries are clean, drained, and air-dried a bit, pour them out thick- but not much more than one layer – on cookie sheets and set them gently inside the freezer (you may need to arrange the frozen goods in the freezer, so the trays can lay flat). Once the berries are frozen (does not take very long, overnight is plenty), scoop them up, breaking apart any small clumps, into freezer bags — usually one-gallon size.
When you freeze them this way, it’s easy to reach into the bag for any amount you want, from 4 cups for a pie, to just a handful for sprinkling onto a sourdough pancake you just poured out on a griddle.
Note: This is kind of cool to watch, if you use frozen huckleberries in a pancake… you pour the batter onto the hot griddle, then immediately sprinkle the frozen berries around on the ‘cake. After you turn them and cook the other side, they may exhibit “craters” where the berries popped a little bit. I prefer the sprinkle method, over mixing directly into the batter first because you get a more even distribution of wild huckleberries in your flapjack. Also, if you let frozen berries “melt” in the batter, the batter turns kind of purple. Which I do sometimes just for variety;-).
I have some friends who swear the special “cookie sheet” treatment for freezing is not necessary, but when I “horse trade” with them, their freezer bags of huckleberries are ALWAYS somewhat clumpy, and usually there’s a pocket or two of purple water, where there was drainage as the huckleberries solidified. Part of the reason is that the huckleberries freeze MUCH faster spread out in the open on a metal sheet, rather than a big lump sealed in a plastic bag, where the heat cannot escape. But do what works for you, based on your needs.
Now, back to the woods… imagine…
The moment has arrived, your first wild huckleberry picking outing of the year. You are ready, huckleberry picker at your side. The cardboard boxes lined with newsprint (or other “breathable” material) are set near the vehicle, in the shade, where a protective security guard with a shotgun awaits the arrival of purple mountain booty from you and any other pickets. On one hand, is your Igloo self-locking “lunch pail” cooler, and on the other, your lightweight, efficient, huckleberry picker tool. You locate your point of attack for the first patch, set down your Igloo in a semi-flat spot, and lean into your prey…
You know the rest!