Juniper is mostly known as the main flavouring agent used in the distilling of gin. They have many more uses than just flavouring gin though. See my post The Gin Revolution for info on how the G&T came about.
Juniper berries aren’t actually berries – they are the aromatic cones of the juniper bush. They are dark purple-blue in color and look rather leathery and shriveled. Juniper berries are regarded as a superfood because they contain a large amount of antioxidants. It is believed that consuming juniper berries can help to prevent major diseases, kill bacteria, improve the appearance of the skin, etc. The juniper berry, in addition to being a popular spice, has long been used in many cultures for its medicinal properties. It’s an effective diuretic and is believed to help soothe symptoms of arthritis. An essential oil extracted from juniper berries is used in aromatherapy and perfumery.
In cooking, Juniper berries bring a sharp, slightly bitter and “pine-like” flavour to food. The flavour of Juniper berries is similar to that of rosemary, but with more citrus-y overtones. It is used in Northern European and Scandinavian cuisine to impart a tart flavor to brines and meat dishes, especially game meats such as venison or boar. It helps to cut back some of the gaminess of venison. Juniper berries can be used fresh or dried, crushed or whole, to flavour casseroles, marinades and stuffings. Juniper berries can also be used in sweet dishes such as fruitcake.
Rosemary can be used as a substitute when a recipe calls for juniper berries. Just mince a small sprig of rosemary for each juniper berry called for in the recipe, or simply add a larger sprig to the dish and remove it when the flavor is strong enough. A less common alternative to juniper berries is cardamom. Sold either ground or in their pods, cardamom has the same type of pine-like flavor with hints of sweetness, bitterness and citrus. Substitute one crushed pod of green or white cardamom for each juniper berry, or extract the seeds from the pods and grind them separately. Using cardamom in place of juniper berries will provide a similar though not identical end result.
Juniper Berries can be found in the spice section of grocery and health food stores.