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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 water.

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. 

Cultivating cranberries 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 frozen. 

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.

Vaccinium is an old Latin name for cranberry, coming from 'vacca' meaning cow, so named because cows liked to eat the berries.

Craneberry is so named probably because cranes are found in the cranberry bogs eating the berries.

Bounceberry is so named because ripe cranberries bounce.

Bearberry comes from the fact that the berries were eaten by bears.

Cowberry, as mentioned above, comes from the old Latin name Vaccinium.  'Vacca', meaning cow, so named because cows eat the berries.

Lingonberry get its orgins from 'lingon' which is Swedish for cowberry.


Fresh cranberries are almost always sold in 12 ounce plastic bags.

Can store in refrigerator for up to 2 months or frozen for up to one year.  You do not need to defrost berries before using.

Dried cranberries are used in both sweet and savory dishes.  To re-hydrate dried cranberries cover with a hot liquid (water, liqueur, etc.), cover and let stand for 20-30 minutes.  Drain.

Canned cranberry sauce, either whole berry or jellied, is available year round.

Most cranberries are commercially processed for juices.

1-12 ounce (340 grams) bag = 3 cups whole or 2 1/2 cups finely chopped

Recipes containing Cranberries:

Candied Cranberries

Chocolate Biscotti with Cranberries

Cranberry Cream Cheese Tart

Cranberry Christmas Cake

 Cranberry Oat Scones

Gingerbread Scones

Hot Cross Buns

Lemon Cranberry Pound Cake

Cranberry Pear and Apple Crumble

Cranberry Bread




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