South Carolina blueberries are ripe for the picking right now

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Blueberries are ripening on bushes all over South Carolina.

Sometime in the next few weeks, before their season is over, find a pick-your-own farm and discover why some people swear there's nothing better than plump, delicious blueberries picked with your own hands.

If you've never picked blueberries before, don't worry. It's an easy task to master.

Pick during a time when you know the berries are dry. Blueberries picked wet with morning dew or rain spoil more quickly than dry berries.

Gently roll berries from the cluster on the bush with your thumb into the palm of your hand. The ripe berries will just drop off. Never pull or force any berries from the plant because those will not be ripe.

Keep your berries out of direct sunlight when you take them home. A cool place is best, such as a cooler. If you put them in plastic bags, punch some holes in the bags to let in some air. Never leave blueberries sitting in a hot car. They go downhill in a hurry.

When you arrive home with your berries, sort out any leaves, stems or insects. Eat or use the soft, damp berries as soon as possible. If all the berries are damp, gently dry them on paper towels.

You can store blueberries in the vegetable bin of the refrigerator for several days in an uncovered, shallow container. Don't wash them until you are ready to use them. Washing ahead of time only toughens the skins.

If you can't get out to pick your own, pay close attention when buying them at the grocery store. Berries that are uniformly blue and firm will have the best flavor and quality.

If you see blue stains on the paperboard container, that's a sign the berries have been crushed at some point, and they will spoil quickly if they haven't already.

July is National Blueberry Month, in case you didn't know. It's certainly a fruit worthy of such an honor.

Delicious and colorful, the blueberry is packed with good nutrition. The U.S. Department of Agriculture tested more than 50 plant foods for antioxidants, and the blueberry was one of those right at the top of the list.

Phytochemicals in blueberries have properties that increase cell membrane fluidity, allowing important nutrients and chemical signals to pass in and out of the cell, thereby reducing inflammatory processes in tissues. The phytochemicals help protect the body against damage from oxidative stress, relieve tired eyes and contain ellagic acid, which helps prevent urinary tract infections.

If you can't eat all your blueberries at once, freeze some of them for use later.

Freeze dry berries in a single layer on a shallow pan lined with wax paper. Transfer frozen berries to freezer bags, label and place the bag in the freezer. Once frozen, blueberries will maintain their quality up to a year at zero degrees or below.

When the time comes to use your frozen berries, measure the amount you need, wash them, and use them while they are still frozen. As they thaw, the frozen berries will discolor lighter-colored foods that are touching them, so plan how you use them.

Blueberry Muffins

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup whole wheat flour

1/2 cup plus 1/2 tablespoon sugar

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1 1/2 to 2 cups fresh or unthawed frozen blueberries

1/4 cup margarine, melted

1/2 cup skim milk

1 egg

1 egg white

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

In a medium mixing bowl, combine flours, cup sugar, baking powder and cinnamon. In a separate bowl, toss blueberries with 1 tablespoon of the flour mixture, and set aside.

After margarine has cooled slightly, stir in milk, egg, egg white and vanilla. Add mixture to dry ingredients, and stir until well-moistened. Stir in berries.

Spoon batter into non-stick sprayed muffin tins. Sprinkle tops with remaining 1/2 tablespoon sugar. Bake until golden. Let muffins stand for 5 minutes before removing from tins. Serve warm or at room temperature. Makes 12 muffins.