Cranberries are a perennial fruit, native to North America, that have a number of culinary uses, especially in baking, for making juice, and for making cranberry sauce, which is a traditional accompaniment for roasted turkey, especially at Thanksgiving.
What Are Cranberries?
Cranberries are small, round fruits, around a centimeter in diameter, with shiny skins, usually red but ranging in color from white to light red to dark red. Their flavor is tart and usually require some sort of sweetener in whatever preparation they're being used.
Cranberries are grown in a handful of states roughly situated in the northern portions of the continental United States, such as Massachusetts, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Washington, and Oregon. British Columbia and Quebec, in Canada, are also cranberry producers. They grow on bushy vines and take 16 months to mature. Cultivating cranberries involves submerging them in pools called bogs twice a year, once during the winter, to protect them from frost, and again the following fall when they're harvested. Harvesting cranberries involves again submerging the vines in water, then driving a mechanical harvester through to knock the berries off the vines. The berries, which float due to the fact that they contain four small air pockets, are then skimmed off the surface of the water.
Around 95 percent of cranberries are processed to make juice, canned cranberry sauce, and dried cranberries, with the remaining 5 percent sold fresh or frozen around the holidays. Around 20 percent of the annual cranberry crop is consumed on Thanksgiving. Fresh and dried cranberries are frequently used in breads, muffins, cookies, pies, cobblers, jellies, fruit salads, as well as savory preparations, usually as an accompaniment for roasted poultry and meat. They're a great add-in for dishes like stuffing, couscous, rice, mashed sweet potatoes, salads, slaws, and relishes.
Cooking With Cranberries
There are two general ways to use fresh cranberries in cooking. One is to bake them, and then there's everything else. And, if you're not baking with cranberries, you'll need to cook them on the stovetop. This involves simmering them, often in some sort of sweetened liquid or a liquid plus an added sweetener, like sugar or honey, for about 10 minutes, until the cranberries burst, which releases their natural pectin into the cooking liquid. Cooking past this point can cause the cranberries to turn mushy and bitter. It's this pectin that thickens the mixture, which is what gives stovetop cranberry sauce its jellylike consistency.
When baking with cranberries, it's best to follow the recipe and use whatever form of cranberry is called for. But, in most cases, when using dried cranberries, you'll need to rehydrate them by soaking them in hot water (or some other flavorful liquid) for around 20 minutes, then draining and adding to your recipe.
Note that added sweetener does not counteract the cranberry's natural acidity, but it's this acidity that makes cranberries such a pleasant accompaniment for roasted meats and poultry. They're also a great choice for combining with other fruits, such as apples, oranges, and peaches.
What Do They Taste Like?
Cranberries are tart, but just how tart are they? It turns out they're even more tart than lemons, with a comparable acidity level. Lemons naturally contain about 1.25 teaspoons of sugar per cup of raw fruit, while cranberries contain 1 teaspoon. They also have a slightly bitter flavor.
Cranberries, fresh and dried, can be used in all sorts of sweet and savory preparations. Here are three recipes that feature cranberries.
Where to Buy Cranberries
Since cranberries are only harvested in the fall, you will only be able to find fresh cranberries in the stores during the months of September through January. Frozen ones are available year-round, however, along with dried ones.
How to Select Cranberries
A fresh cranberry will be shiny and plump and have a deep red color; the deeper the color the more highly concentrated the beneficial compounds are. Truly fresh cranberries are quite firm to the touch and will bounce if you drop them. (Cranberry harvesters will actually bounce the berries against boards to sort the high quality from the low quality.) Shriveled berries or those with brown spots should be avoided.
You will most often see fresh cranberries tightly packed into 12-ounce bags, but if organic berries, you may find them packaged in pint containers. One 12-ounce bag of fresh cranberries will yield about 3 cups whole or 2 1/2 cups chopped cranberries.
If you are looking for cranberries during their off-season, you will have to purchase them in a different form—either dried, canned, or frozen. Dried cranberries are similar to raisins. They cannot substitute fresh cranberries in cranberry sauce but are an interesting addition to salads and other recipes. Canned cranberry sauce is a perennial favorite and is available either as a smooth, congealed jelly (that has taken on the form of the can) or as a whole-berry sauce that has a looser consistency. The best replacement for fresh cranberries is frozen, which are available year-round. The frozen berries can be put into recipes without thawing. Once thawed, however, they will be very soft and should be used immediately.
Fresh cranberries need to be kept cold. If you bought them in the bag, simply store that bag in your refrigerator. Since the bag is sealed, it makes no difference whether you store them in the crisper drawer or in the main compartment of the fridge. They'll keep in the fridge for up to four weeks. You can freeze fresh cranberries, and they'll last for up to a year. Dried cranberries will last for 6 to 12 months at room temperature.