Every year as the calendar
approaches November, plastic bags full of bright red berries begin to
appear on grocer's shelves. Equally true, is that once December draws to a
close, those beautiful red berries will once again disappear. While some
fresh fruits, like apples, enjoy year round popularity others, like cranberries,
seem to be associated mainly with a season or holiday. Cranberries' ties
to Thanksgiving date back to the its beginnings (1621) when they were served
alongside the wild turkey. American Indians introduced the earliest
settlers to this small, hard,
smooth-skinned, shiny red, round to oval-shaped wild berry that is also known by
the names craneberry, bounceberry, bearberry, cowberry, or lingonberry.
The Indians used the cranberry as both a food and a medicine.
Sailors as well as settlers traveling westward used cranberries, full of Vitamin
C, as a way to ward off scurvy. On long sea voyages, to keep the
cranberries fresh, the sailors would store the berries in barrels full of
Besides the Concord grape and
blueberry, the cranberry is one of three fruits that are native to America.
It is the fruit of a small shrub with trailing vines that likes cold
climates. It grows best in poor acid soil in flooded areas called bogs or
on moors or mountainsides. Although grown throughout the world, Northern
Europe and North America are best known for the cranberry. In North
America, cultivated cranberries are grown mainly in
Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Washington and Oregon but can be found growing wild in
bogs from Nova Scotia to North Carolina and westward to Michigan over to the
west coasts of Oregon and Washington.
started in the early 1800s and it took many years of trial and error to discover
the best techniques for cultivation. Once painstakingly harvested by hand,
machine methods were eventually developed to enable more cranberries to be grown
with less effort. Processing of the berries involved finding
an efficient method for separating the good cranberries from the bad. As
good cranberries bounce and bad ones don't, a mechanical system was devised for
sorting that incorporated this unusual characteristic.
Before 1960 most
cranberries were sold either fresh or canned. It wasn't until
the 1960s that the demand for cranberries started to exceed supply.
This is when Ocean Spray introduced a drink called cranberry
juice cocktail. Its instant success led to other
cranberry-fruit combinations being developed like Cran-Raspberry, Cran-Grape, and Cran-Apple
drinks. In fact, so popular are cranberry drinks that most
cranberries grown today are processed for use in fruit drinks.
The tartness of the
cranberry make it one of the few berries never to be eaten raw. Sugar is needed
to temper its tangy flavor. Cranberries are used in both
sweet and savory dishes. Commonly used in desserts (cookies, pies, quick
breads, muffins, cakes, cobblers, etc.), as well as confections, sauces,
compotes, chutneys, jams and jellies. Their wonderfully tart fresh flavor
is enhanced when combined with sweet ingredients and when paired with other
fruits like apples, pears, and oranges.
Cranberries are harvested
in the fall from Labor Day (early September) through late October.
They can be found in the produce section of grocery stores from October through
December. Frozen cranberries can usually be found year round.
Because cranberries contain benzoic acid, a natural preservative, they can be
stored naturally for up to 2 months in the refrigerator or up to one year
Look for berries that are
firm, plump, shiny, and evenly colored (light to dark red). Avoid soft,
discolored (white or green ones are under ripe) or shriveled cranberries.
Remove stems and wash just before using. When cooking cranberries they are
done when they "pop". If you cook them too long they will taste bitter and
turn to mush.