These very tart, glossy red berries (Vaccinium macrocarpon) grow on wild shrubs or low-trailing vines in great sandy bogs. With a short peak season that coincides with North American Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts, cranberries make an important appearance on holiday tables as a traditional turkey accompaniment. In addition to sauces, these blueberry cousins are also delicious in chutneys, pies and cobblers.
There are more than 130 species of cranberries, but the American Cranberry is the variety most often cultivated in the United States (mainly Massachusetts, Washington, Oregon and Wisconsin) and southern Canada. These berries are larger than both wild and European varieties.
Called I bimi by the American Indians, the berries were used to prepare foods, arrow wound remedies and beautiful red dyes. It was the pilgrims who named them cranberries, originally "crane-berries," because they noticed how the cranes flocked to eat them.
The peak market time for fresh cranberries is October through December. At the supermarket, they're usually sold in 12-ounce plastic bags. Since you can't pick through them, choose packages that contain berries of intensely bright color (light to dark red). Once you get home, discard any that are shriveled or discolored, as these are signs of decay.
Cranberries are also available frozen, dried or as a canned (jelled or whole-berry) sauce all year-round.
Fresh cranberries may be placed in an airtight plastic bag and refrigerated for up to two months, or frozen up to one year.
Dried cranberries may be stored airtight at room temperature for up to six months, or frozen up to one year.
• Before using, discard any soft, shriveled or discolored berries. Pull off any remaining stems and wash the berries well.
• There is no need to defrost frozen cranberries before using.
• Cranberries can be quickly chopped in a food processor using quick pulses.
Cooking and Usage Tips
• Cook cranberries only until they pop. Any longer, and they'll turn out mushy and bitter.
• When making homemade relish, substitute a fruity red wine for all or part of the cooking liquid.
• To cut down on tartness, combine cranberries with other fruits such as apples or dried apricots.
• Use dried cranberries in recipes calling for raisins, including muffins, breads, desserts and entrées.
• Add dried cranberries to side salads