Cedar berries come from eastern red cedar trees (Juniperus virginiana) that can grow as tall as 50 feet. The juniper berries used for flavoring come from the Juniperus communis, which can be a sprawling shrub or a tree that can grow as tall as 52 feet. Both eastern red cedar trees and Juniperus communis plants produce berries that are a dark blue and about the size of large peppercorns. Neither cedar berries not juniper berries are eaten raw; instead, they are dried and often crushed. Note that cedar and juniper berries become black when they dry out and can easily be mistaken for peppercorns. The crushed berry can then be used as a spice.
While both belong to the same family, they manifest different qualities with the most important being a difference in flavor. We will look at that difference below in this edition of SPICEography Showdown.
How does the flavor of cedar berries differ from that of juniper berries?
Cedar berries are a type of juniper berry and neither of the two is a berry at all in common sense of the word. Instead of being fruit, cedar berries are actually very small seed cones similar to pine cones. They have a similar appearance to berries. Because they are from juniper trees (not cedars), cedar berries have a similar flavor to other juniper berry varieties. The big difference is that the flavor of cedar berries is usually milder than the flavor of the juniper berry varieties used to make gin, such as the Juniperus communis. For many people this mildness is an asset as the flavor of juniper berries can be bitter and resinous akin to turpentine.
If your recipe requires one, is the other a viable alternative?
Since the main difference between the two has to do with the strength of the flavor rather than the different flavor notes, they can be used as substitutes for each other. Since cedar berries have noticeably less flavor when compared to the juniper berries, you are less likely to over-flavor your dish but you may need to use more to achieve the right amount of flavoring. It is important to note that cedar berries can be toxic if consumed in excess. While both cedar berries and juniper berries can be harmful, cedar berries have a higher likelihood of being toxic. They should not be consumed by pregnant women.
Juniper berries can be used as a substitute for cedar berries, but it is important to note that you will need to use less of them since their flavor is more concentrated. Because juniper berries are more pungent, it is easier to use too much of them and they may cause bitterness and give your dish a strong turpentine flavor.
When should you use cedar berries and when should you use juniper berries?
Use cedar berries in dishes where the strong flavor of juniper berries is not necessary. Its mildness is such that it may actually be more versatile.
Juniper berry’s strong flavor is traditionally used to as a seasoning for game meats like venison. This is the ideal use for it as venison has its own strong flavors and will require a spice with pungent notes to complement them. Another traditional use is in sauerkraut, which has its own pungent flavors.