Cranberries are as rooted in history and lore as they are in American holiday cuisine. Rumored to have been served at the first Thanks-giving at Plymouth Rock, these tiny, scarlet berries date back hundreds of years as one of the few native North American fruits. Although a holiday staple, cranberries—fresh, frozen and dried—are also used in countless applications year-round, enhancing much more than the traditional turkey dinner.
Grown in huge, sandy bogs on low, trailing vines, cranberries are extensively cultivated in Massachusetts, Wisconsin, New Jersey, Washington, Oregon and Canada. The berries also can be found thriving wild in the same North American regions, in addition to northern Europe.
While available frozen and dried year-round, peak harvest season for fresh berries is September through October, with availability continuing through December. Only about 5% of the harvest is reserved for fresh-fruit sales; the rest is slated for freezing, juice processing and as an ingredient in more than 700 products from sauce to cereals and salsas.
When ripe, there are two methods of harvesting cranberries. In dry harvesting, used for berries intended for the fresh-fruit market, a mechanical picker that resembles a lawn mower combs berries off the vine and collects them on a conveyor belt. For a wet harvest, bogs are flooded with 8-10 in. of water, and machines like egg beaters loosen berries from the vine. Because cranberries contain a tiny pocket of air at their center, they float to the top of the water. They’re corralled to a corner of the bog where they are then collected and shipped to processing facilities.
Fresh and frozen cranberries can be used interchangeably. Their extremely tart flavor benefits from a sweet counterpart like apples, dried apricots and oranges. When heated, cranberries eventually pop, indicating the pocket of air has escaped, and the berry is tender. Cranberries can be cooked in water, fruit juice or spiked with liquor for added depth.
Use fresh and frozen cranberries in traditional baked goods and desserts; the added sugar in the cake, cobbler, muffin or scone is often enough to balance the tartness without losing the flavor.
In savory dishes, the berries provide an assertive flavor foil. Traditionally paired with strongly-flavored meats like game, the berries also enhance roasted or braised pork and poultry. Use in stews and curries, sauces, salsas and chutneys, or add to side dishes like rice pilaf, wild rice blends and couscous.
Dried cranberries are particularly versatile. Typically sweetened during the drying process, their sweet-tart flavor and chewy texture makes them palatable to a wide audience, including children. Use them as you would raisins in baked goods such as muffins, scones and quickbreads. Or rehydrate dried berries in liqueur, fruit juice or a combination to create dynamic dessert sauces.
Dried cranberries also enhance savory dishes. Add them to stews, cooking liquids and side dishes, where they will plump and absorb flavors. You can also sprinkle the dried berries onto green or grain salads, pizza, or as a garnish for savory entrees.