By: Co+op

Sweet and juicy, with an unmistakable texture and fragrance, strawberries are one of the most anticipated fruits of the summer. In fact, strawberries are the most popular berry fruit in the world.

While strawberries are grown in temperate areas everywhere, the United States is the largest producer. Other big growers include Canada, France, Italy, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. In the United States, California, Oregon and Florida grow the most strawberries for commercial use.

This widespread love of strawberries isn't newfound, either. Strawberry seeds have been discovered in Neolithic sites in Denmark and Switzerland and in Iron Age sites in England. Because of its heart shape and color, the strawberry was a symbol for Venus, goddess of love. The French were the first to begin serious strawberry cultivation, in the late 15th century. They were able to breed the larger type of strawberry we know today (wild strawberries are smaller than cultivated berries).

An excellent source of vitamin C and manganese, strawberries are a very good source of dietary fiber and iodine, too. They're also a sweet, delicious source of potassium, folate, B vitamins, omega-3s, magnesium, copper and vitamin K—and they contain many phytonutrients to boot.

With over 600 varieties, there's no shortage of strawberries to fill your berry basket. There are spring bearing, June bearing and everbearing strawberries (plants that produce berries throughout the growing season, often in spring, summer and fall). Popular choices in the United States include Albion, Apollo, Bountiful, Earliglow, Gaviota, Primetime, Redgem, Seascape, Kent, Titan and Winona. Heirloom varieties include Madame Moutot, Scarlet, Alexandria Alpine, Mignonette and White Pine.

It’s easy to create delicious dishes with such tasty fruit; simply wash, slice and top with whipped cream or vanilla yogurt for a simple dessert. Or whip up some crème fraîche ahead of time to serve a special treat—like Peppered Strawberries with Crème Fraîche—in a jiffy.

Speaking of desserts, is there anything more classic than strawberry shortcake with tender buttermilk biscuits?

Rhubarb and strawberries are best buds. Make a divine topping for ice cream and pancakes by stewing fresh strawberries, your favorite sweetener and diced rhubarb until very tender. Or highlight their affinity with this Rhubarb Tart Parisienne with Honeyed Strawberries.

Fold strawberries into muffins (seasoned with nutmeg and cinnamon) and pancakes, or use them to make strawberry pancake syrup.

Strawberries partner well with all manner of other produce, too, including blueberries, pineapple, kiwi, pears, lemons and greens. Transform a plain spinach salad by topping with strawberries, walnuts and poppyseed dressing. Or opt for a balsamic vinegar dressing and a soft cheese with your strawberries, as in this Spinach and Strawberry Salad with Goat Cheese. For something completely unexpected, add strawberries to soup. Strawberry Tomato Gazpacho would be a delightful summer lunch.

Don’t forget drinks: Frozen strawberries compliment beverages from lemonade to champagne. This Strawberry Pomegranate Smoothie combines two colorful favorites with kefir and banana for sweet, creamy, nutritious goodness.

Generally available from spring through summer, strawberries are at their peak through mid-summer.

Look for plump, firm, shiny red berries with fresh green caps (berries that are still yellow or green will taste sour because they're not yet ripe). By the way, bigger isn't better when it comes to strawberries; medium-sized berries are usually more flavorful than larger ones.

Make sure the berries aren't crushed or damaged by tight packaging and that there's no sign of moisture. Remove any spoiled berries before storing in the refrigerator for a day or two. Don't wash them until you’re ready to eat them, but use them as soon as possible after purchase, because they’re very perishable.

Strawberries freeze well, sliced or whole.