If you've shopped at Ikea in its food section, no doubt you've seen lingonberries in jams, preserves, and syrups. Served as a condiment, they're very popular in Scandinavia, but these lesser-known berries grow in North America, too. Although they sound esoteric, lingonberries are intrinsic to the Nordic diet, which emphasizes native, wild, and/or foraged foods. They can be used in a variety of applications, both sweet and savory.
What Are Lingonberries?
Small, deep ruby in color and tart, this fruit is the Scandinavian equivalent to North American cranberries in terms of both taste and use. They also come from the same family of plants. The berries grow abundantly on low-lying evergreen bushes in acidic soul throughout Scandinavian and northern North American forests (New England, the upper Midwest, Pacific Northwest, and Canada).
These berries show up most often in jams and condiments, but if you should find them for sale somewhere, fresh or frozen (the latter is more accessible) consider yourself very lucky. This fruit is mostly wild harvested, and not cultivated for mass consumption as a fresh fruit. Consequently, the price typically reflects this reality—they're not cheap. But the effort is worth it.
How to Cook With Lingonberries
Lingonberry sauce or jam is traditionally served alongside Norwegian pancakes, Swedish köttbullar (meatballs), raggmunk (potato pancakes), and fried herring. Christmas in Sweden comes complete with hot rice pudding, accompanied by rårörda lingon (lingonberry jam).
But today, modern chefs and mixologists have embraced this unusual fruit by adding them to cheesecake, soups, pickles, wines, and craft cocktails, thanks in part to the rising interest in all things Scandinavian (especially design and food) and a dose of good old-fashioned culinary curiosity.
What Do They Taste Like?
Their bright red color is appealing, but don't let that fool you: Lingonberries taste sour with a bit of sweetness and might not be something you'd enjoy eating raw. These red berries are smaller, juicier, and bear a softer flesh than their distant cousin the cranberry—another fruit that's not commonly eaten raw. They're also small and sour like red currants, which have a similar interior.
Much like cranberries, lingonberries do well as condiments that need sugar to be palatable, and that's when their variety of uses comes into play. When transformed into a jam or syrup, lingonberries pair well with wild game, red meat, fish, and a wide range of desserts and cocktails.
Their ruby color, fall harvest time, and kinship to cranberries make them a great addition to your a holiday table in lieu of cranberries. And if you can't find them, you can use cranberries in a lingonberry recipe. Similarly, they can be swapped for red currants, too, which are a tad sweeter than lingonberries.
Where to Buy Lingonberries
It's nearly impossible to find fresh lingonberries unless you buy them from an online purveyor or pick them yourself, but you'd have to be lucky enough to live where they're grown. They are traditionally harvested in September, and U.S. cultivation practices make them seasonally available in specialty grocery stores. Look for fruits that are vibrantly red, with no signs of spoilage or softness.
If you're looking for lingonberries or lingonberry jam in the United States and you don't live near an Ikea, try a European food or gourmet market. You may also find frozen and canned lingonberries in specialty grocers or health food stores, sometimes sold as red whortleberries, cowberries, mountain cranberries, and mountain bilberries. Lingonberry powder and dried lingonberries are available online and from specialty purveyors.
It's possible to grow lingonberry shrubs in your yard—they make for a great edible landscape choice if you live within zones 2 through 6, as determined by the USDA agricultural hardiness scale. They're a popular choice for borders, containers, and beds. The plants perform best in a sunny spot, produce delicate white flowers in the spring, spread easily, and don't require a lot of maintenance.
Bursting with natural preservatives, like benzoic acid and pectin, lingonberries were invaluable to early Scandinavians. Their special properties allow them to be stored for months at room temperature by simply placing them in a jar of water without the addition of a preservative salt.
The simple concoction of "pickled" berries in jars (called vattlingon) was traditionally saved and served alongside holiday dishes and in winter comfort feasts. Early uses also included stirring the raw berries with a small amount of sugar to make a rårörda lingon, a classic Swedish lingonberry jam—no cooking required.
If you have some fresh ones in your possession and want to use them in the future, they take well to freezing. Place them in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet lined with wax paper and freeze. Then, transfer them to a resealable freezer bag. If stored properly, they'll keep for up to a year.
Nutrition and Benefits
As the story goes, ancient mariners brought lingonberry concoctions—rich in vitamin C—with them on long journeys at sea to keep scurvy away. Indeed, this berry contains a range of antioxidants, which can reduce inflammation and, when paired with cranberries, have been shown in some studies to ward off urinary tract infections due to its antibacterial properties. In addition to vitamin C, lingonberries are a good source of vitamin A, manganese, and magnesium.
Blumberg JB, Camesano TA, Cassidy A, et al. Cranberries and their bioactive constituents in human health. Adv Nutr. 2013;4(6):618-32. doi:10.3945/an.113.004473