When Americans think about cranberries, most are immediately reminded of Thanksgiving, when cranberries make their appearance as the most popular side dish at the table. Americans will consume nearly 80 million pounds of the seasonal fruit this year during Thanksgiving week, but the cranberry crop begins its harvest in late October, making November the perfect time to give this historied, and uniquely American, fruit a feature role in the kitchen.
A Brief History of Cranberries
Cranberries are one of only three fruits that can claim roots in North America (besides blueberries and Concord grapes). Grown mostly in Massachusetts (though also found in New Jersey, Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin), cranberries were first used by Native Americans as food, dyes, and medicines as early as 1550. And they’ve graced these regions with their presence ever since, often becoming a local source of pride for the area.
Native Americans from the East coast first gave cranberries to the European settlers who arrived in Massachusetts. They recognized how well the fruit aided digestion, and the berries were later carried by American whalers on their voyages to prevent illness at sea. Still, the fruit didn’t become a commercial commodity until one happy accident in Massachusetts.
Sea captain Henry Hall had cut down some trees on his property, causing sand from the beach to blow in and cover parts of his cranberry bog. Hall was certain the crop was ruined, but during the next harvest he discovered that the berries covered by the sand turned out even larger and tastier than the rest. Hall quickly learned what cranberry harvesters today know: That cranberries thrive in sandy and acidic soils.
Cranberries are often considered a “superfood” because of their sky-high concentration of antioxidants - so high that they contain more than almost every other fruit and vegetable. An eight-ounce glass of cranberry juice also contains your full daily value of vitamin C, which is helpful for preventing immune deficiencies, promoting cardiovascular health and even slowing skin wrinkles. Even better for heart health, cranberries are high in fiber and very low in fat, making them perfect for healthy snacking year-round.
Cooking with Cranberries
This time of year is ideal for incorporating fresh cranberries into your cooking and baking. We recommend buying up a bunch of fresh cranberries now that they are in season, and freezing them for use throughout the year (you won’t even need to defrost them before cooking). Their dense, firm structure makes them perfect freezer fodder.
Have you only ever used the canned variety? Don’t let these small, tart fruits intimidate you - they are great candied, mixed into your breakfast oats, infused into your liquor, or even combined into a compound butter.
When preparing cranberries, just remember a few things: Be sure not to over-cook them (only cook the berries until they pop - otherwise, they become mushy and bitter). Also, always add a pinch of salt to brighten the berries up to their full potential. And don’t forget: cranberries go great with orange and ginger, so consider experimenting with this trio.