Foraging for Gooseberries
July 29, 2013 | Updated November 06, 2020
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Ah, the gooseberry, an unloved berry if there ever was one — especially here in North America. We have nearly 100 varieties here, yet few people here even know they exist, let alone take to the woods in search of these beauties. Well, they do exist, and they are well worth your effort to hunt them up. Here’s what you need to know to gather ye gooseberries in style.
First you must find them.
Fortunately they grow pretty much everywhere on our continent, other than deserts… and there are even a few species that do thrive in arid regions. But in general, look for hills and mountains, cool(ish) climates and moisture.
When you are in such a region, look for spiky shrubs: A hallmark of the gooseberry clan is that they almost always have thorns all over them, on the branches and even sometimes the berries themselves.
Then there is the leaf. The maple-like leaves of gooseberries and their cousins the currants are very similar across all species. Memorize the shape of this leaf and you will start seeing it everywhere.
All currants and gooseberries have leaves that pretty much look like this.
How to tell the difference between a currant and a gooseberry? The fruits of both are edible, although there are more species of currant with an unpleasant, mealy or tannic flavor than there are of gooseberries, which are universally tart and a little sweet. Gooseberries set flowers and fruit in a line underneath the branches. Currants flower and fruit in clusters at the end of branches. Here are the flowers:
And here are the unripe fruits of the Sierra gooseberry:
See the little “tail” on the bottom of the fruit? That’s the remnant of the flower, and it is another hallmark of the Ribes clan, which includes both currants and gooseberries. That little tail is perfectly edible, but you might want to remove it for fancy preparations.
Now by now you might have noticed that wild gooseberries — especially these Sierra gooseberries above — are not the friendliest of fruits. I mean look at them! Nasty, spiky, prickly things that will impale your hands without a second thought. You must pick them with gloves or suffer the consequences. At least the Rocky Mountain wild gooseberry pictured at the top of this post not quite so prickly.
Most of the gooseberries east of the Great Basin can be eaten off the bush, although they are very tart. But the Sierra gooseberry and its prickly cousin that lives along the Pacific Coast is a bit more challenging. Bottom line is you need to cook these. Cooking softens the spines and lets you get at the delicious pulp within, which tastes brightly acidic and a little sweet. The aroma is weirdly similar to like Sweet Tarts candy.
The best way I’ve found to eat the prickly wild gooseberries is to cook them with a little water, smash the berries and strain the resulting pulp. The juice makes an excellent sorbet or syrup to use in cold drinks. It will also make a wonderful jelly. The pulp left behind can, it is said, be used as a pie filling, although I’ve never done that.
If your gooseberries don’t look like little Sputnik satellites, you can just eat them.
Since they are so tart, I love them with some sugar or honey and something dairy. My favorite way to eat them is to stir together mascarpone cheese with dark wildflower honey until combined, then fold in the gooseberries. Damn good.
Here’s how to process the spiky kind:
- 8 cups Sierra gooseberries, or 5 cups smaller gooseberries
- Enough water to cover, about 1 quart
- 3 cups sugar or honey
- Wash your berries well and put the Sierra gooseberries into a large pot. This seems like a lot, but they are large and very spiky, so they take up more space than other gooseberries. If you have regular gooseberries -- wild or domestic -- only use 5 to 6 cups. Barely cover the berries with water, cover the pot and bring to a boil.
- Boil for 2 to 3 minutes. Turn off the heat and, using a potato masher, crush the berries to a pulp. Do not use a blender, food processor or immersion blender! If you do, you will merely make the nasty spikes smaller and harder to remove later.
- Let this steep, covered, until it gets to room temperature, then pour everything through a fine-meshed strainer into a container and let it sit overnight in the fridge. The sediment at the bottom will be tan, the juice varying degrees of red or purple -- if you are using ripe gooseberries.
- Strain again through a fine-meshed strainer with a piece of paper towel set inside. This will leave you with clear juice. This juice will store in the fridge for a week or so, as-is. Or you can heat the gooseberry juice with an equal volume of sugar and make gooseberry syrup. The syrup lasts months in the fridge. As for the sediment, taste it. If it is not too gritty, you can mix it with a thickener like tapioca and make it into a pie filling.
Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.
one thing that drives me slightly crazy about your foraging posts you rarely if ever note the season of harvest. Is this found in springtime? Summer? are the fruits up for a week like some? A month like others? I continually find this quite frustrating.
Michael: Well, this is California, so you can find them as early as May in some places, and as late as November in others. Generally gooseberries in most of North America are found in high summer.
Lillian Williams! I want your recipe! My daughter now works for the US Forest Service and we picked gooseberries with her and I don’t have a pie recipe.. My first time having a gooseberry! I hope you still check back here! Thanks!!
If you really want to try something wonderful with these berries, try them in a pie. If you want my recipe let me know
Carefully, and with consideration of fire safety, use a butane lighter to scorch the spikes on the berry. Once the tips are burned off, rinse with cold water and eat.
Hold the non flower tail end of the gooseberry between your right thumb and forefinger nails and slide your left thumb and forefingers tips down the length of the berry to flatten the spines so you can get a grip on the berry without pricking yourself. Then pull off the soft, non flower tip end so that it opens the top of the berry and carefully squeeze the seeds out so you can get some in your mouth. Takes practice but there’s nothing like standing in the middle of no where eating gooseberries.
Jannette: Cool tip, thanks!
MEK, do you have a jelly recipe? 19 jars is a lot! You must know what you’re doing!
My grandmother made Sierra Gooseberries into jelly when I was young. No recipe in her box so got them cooked down to juice. Jelly tomorrow morning. I was working from memory from when I was 8 or 10 at her elbow by the wood cook stove so thanks for this post. I think I’m headed in the right direction. Can’t wait.
I just finished canning19 jars of (spiny) gooseberry jelly. The color of the jelly is just beautiful. My mother did all of the wild fruits into jelly so I am carrying on the tradition. Next is my elderberry search and jelly made with them!! I am in Northern California and there are LOTS of berries this year!!
I am trying to hunt down some gooseberries. I found one patch so far and that’s it. If you could contact me about details on how to hunt these (not your locations, but just general mountain ranges and such to check out) It would be appreciated! I want to try these again!
We recently gathered bunches of sierra gooseberries near yosemite national park trying various things…..any tips would be helpful…dry year so the berries were very inconsistent…..trying syrup first…yes there are very few resources for this wonderful berry
My great aunt picked wild gooseberries in the Flint Hills of SE Kansas and made the very best pies I ever tasted. So tart and perfect. Thank you Aunt Lodie.
In Iowa. Never heard of a gooseberry until I moved into this house just outside of town and found this prickly bush that sits at the top of my stairs to the driveway. Of course Gramma had to tell me what they were. Thank God mine look like the ones in the top picture. I have battle scars from picking them! If they had looked like spiny ones in the next pic… I probably would’ve pulled ’em and gave up! (And I’m a pretty persistent person!).
Anyway… we jam or pie the whole berry, seeds and all. Although, when I get tired of de-stemming & flowering them… they go in the pot for jelly 🙂
After boiling and cooling, my mom used to pour the semi cooked mush into a sheet which was tied to a broom handle and hung between two chairs. We kids would slowly spin the dangling mass, tighter and tighter, and squeeze the juice out into a pot waiting below.
My mom died eight years ago, and I still associate the taste of these amazing (spiny) fruits with her sweet, gardener’s sense. So lovely to find others enjoying this treat.
Just did a quick search on gooseberries… have wandered around in my home 100 acres for 30 years, and have never seen this particular plant in either the swampy areas or the pine groves, nor have I seen it in any season up in Eastern Maine.
Looks like anywhere that White Pine was an economic resource, ribes were eradicated until the 60’s.
Fool! (Not you, the dessert!)
Just finished the rest of a gooseberry pie tonight. Surprised how few people know about this plant. I haven’t come across too many recipes for them. Can’t wait to see what you come up with.
I was just up at French Meadows this weekend and finding a ton of unripe gooseberries, wondering how to prepare them. Thanks! I also saw remnants of an old porcini…guess they’d be found in the same place 🙂
Just finished our annual 4/5 day camping trip in the Sequoias around in Frasier Mill. The gooseberries there are not yet ripe, as of July 26th, but soon they will be. We used to eat them as kids using needle nose pliers to hold while cutting open to turn inside out and Yum! Really great to see someone else who knows them and enjoys them as well.
I will be there again in about a week or so and there should be a ton of them ripe. I will for sure be trying this recipe.
Hey: I love making jelly out of them and it goes a treat with oily fish. I love your site!