Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Cranberries

There's a fruit out there that is uniquely American, and it's not the apple in your pie. It's the cranberry. Unlike most of the fruits and vegetables that we've covered in the Real Food series, the cranberry does not have previous lives in far away lands before coming to North America. Along with the Concord grape, the blueberry and a few others, the cranberry was born on native soil.

Brief History of Cranberries

Historians agree that the first European explorers documented Native Americans foraging for wild cranberries, not only for food but medicine and dye for textiles. They'd sweeten fresh berries with honey or maple syrup, or dry the fruit and pound it with dried meat and melted animal fat into a variation on jerky called pemmican. Ground, dried cranberries were used as an antibacterial poultice. Depending on the Indian tribe, the cranberry went by many names, ibimi ("bitter berry"), atoqua and sassamanesh, among them.

Early settlers in Massachusetts would learn the versatility of this fruit soon after their arrival in 1620, but there is no evidence that cranberries were part of the "first Thanksgiving" in 1621. The word "cranberry" comes from the German word kranebeere, which means "craneberry." Others assert that early settlers thought the cranberry blossom (visible in the summer) resembled the head and bill of a crane. Either way, the "cranberry" was born.

Before the end of the 17th century, settlers as well as curious visitors were discovering the mighty cranberry and its financial potential. They were pressing juice and shipping cranberries back to Europe, and discovered they held up remarkably well because of a naturally occurring preservative called benzoic acid. Because of their high Vitamin C content, the berries were eaten on ships to prevent scurvy.

Seventeenth century British sojourner/ author John Josselyn noted in his 1672 book, New England's Rarities Discovered, "The Indians and English use them much, boyling them with Sugar for Sauce to eat with their Meat; and it is a delicate Sauce especially for roasted Mutton; Some make Tarts with them as with Goose Berries."

A little more than 100 years later, the cranberry makes an appearance in American Cookery, the first known cookbook written by an American. In the 1796 collection, author Amelia Simmons recommends serving roast turkey or fowl with "cramberry-fauce," as well as boiled onions, mangoes, pickles or celery.

Cranberries remained the stuff of the marshy wilderness until the early 1800s. A gent by the name of Captain Henry Hall, based in the coastal town of Dennis, Massachusetts, noted that covering cranberry vines with sand made them grow. His discovery led to draining swamplands and the development of commercial cranberry bogs. By the mid 1800s, the first census of cranberry acreage would go on the records.

From New England, cranberry cultivation spread to coastal areas of New Jersey and Wisconsin, and by the 1870s, into Washington and then Oregon.

In 1912, Americans were introduced to jellied cranberry sauce in a can, which would set the stage for another chapter in cranberry history. By 1930, three smaller cranberry processors merged to form a large grower-owned coop that would become known as Ocean Spray; the first OS product was canned cranberry sauce, followed by a sweetened "cranberry cocktail" in a bottle.

During WWII, cranberries were considered a war crop and the government requested that the cranberry industry focus on dehydrating fruit that could be sent to troops overseas.

Factual Nibbles

  • "Cramberys" were on the menu at the 1703 commencement dinner at Harvard College.
  • Homesick for his favorite foods while living in England in the mid-1700s, founding father Benjamin Franklin would ask his wife, Deborah, to ship him cranberries.
  • In 1863, President Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday, which coincided with the cranberry "gold rush" spreading across the country.
  • According to Ocean Spray, Americans open more than 70 million cans of jellied cranberry sauce during the winter holiday season.
  • The cranberry became the official state berry of Massachusetts in 1994 and the official state fruit of Wisconsin in 2004.
  • In 1993, Ocean Spray Cranberries introduced a line of dried cranberries and dubbed them "Craisins."  The word has been trademarked by Ocean Spray but has entered the American vernacular as the nickname for dried cranberries.

Cranberry Cultivation

Botanically, we're talking about Vaccinium macrocarpon, a member of the Heather (Ericaceae) family. Relatives include the blueberry and bilberry.

Neither bush nor tree, the American cranberry (there are European varieties) is an evergreen vine, with short, woody runner stems that creep along the ground. Its ideal habitat is a low swampy bog and acidic, sandy soil. Although they don't grow under water, cranberries harvested for processing (juice, dried fruit, etc.) are done so by intentionally flooding the bogs. The dislodged berries float to the top of the bog and are gathered using big scoops. "Dry" harvests are done for fresh berries, which represent just 5-10 percent of annual cranberry crops. (Most Americans get their 2.3 pound annual cranberry fill in their juice glass.)

The cranberry has a unique growing cycle. Mature fruit makes a one-time, short-term appearance in the early fall. Flowers bud in late spring but the fruit will not even form for months.

According to USDA statistics, Wisconsin produced 60 percent of the nation's 8-million-barrel-strong cranberry haul in 2012, followed by Massachusetts, which produced about one-fourth of the nation's total. It is the number one fruit crop for Massachusetts. Smaller yields come from New Jersey, Oregon and Washington. In Canada, British Columbia is the most cranberry-prolific part of the country. Most recently, Ocean Spray has expanded its bog operations to Chile.

Cranberry Seasonality

As mentioned earlier, fresh cranberries have one season: fall. They are harvested from late September until early November. Oregon and Washington have later harvests, and as a result bear more deeply pigmented fruit. If you live in a cranberry growing state, you may be lucky enough to find fresh cranberries at farmers' markets and farm stands. Most of us will find fresh cranberries in supermarket produce aisles into mid-December.

Environmental Impact of Growing Cranberries

The USDA has not tested conventional cranberries for pesticide residues since 2006, which explains their absence from the Environmental Working Group's Shoppers Guide to Pesticides in Produce, EWG spokesperson Sara Sciammacco told me in an e-mail.

Still, it's worth noting what the Pesticide Data Program detected seven years ago. At that time, 69 percent of sampled cranberries contained residues from a combined total of 12 different pesticides. 44 percent of all samples contained residues from one pesticide; an additional 10 percent contained residues from two pesticides. Of the 12 detected pesticides, three - acephate, chlorpyrifos and methamidophos - belong to a class of highly toxic pesticides called organophosphates.

In 1993, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classified acephate as a "possible human carcinogen"; in 2000, the EPA banned chlorpyrifos  (sold as Dursban) for residential use, and in 2012, announced further restrictions for food crops. A 2007 study conducted at Columbia University showed potential links between chlorpyrifos exposure and ADHD among children; over the years, it has also been studied for links to increased incidence of Parkinson's Disease and certain kinds of cancer.

Pesticides and cranberries go way back, too. In 1959, fresh cranberries from Oregon and Washington were the subject of a nationwide scare due to concern of potential contamination by the weed killer Aminotriazole, believed to cause cancer. On November 9, just two weeks before Thanksgiving, the Eisenhower administration advised consumers not to buy cranberries from either Oregon or Washington, which had been feared contaminated. The announcement created a panic and supermarkets nationwide pulled cranberries from the shelves.

The "Cranberry Crisis of 1959" led to an aminotriazole ban on food crops in 1971. Although still in the marketplace for use on non-food crops, aminotriazole is classified as a Restricted Use pesticide and according to the NIH, is "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen."

By their very nature, cranberry bogs require tremendous amounts of water (particularly during harvest). As my Real Food Right Now colleague Leslie Hatfield reported last year, Wisconsin still observes an 1867 "Cranberry Law" that exempts growers from getting permits to build dams to facilitate cranberry production. Nationally, cranberry growers are exempt from several pieces of the Clean Water Act.

But change is coming, even if slowly, and it seems that cranberry growers are making inroads on the way to sustainability. The Cape Cod Cranberry Growers' Association, which represents 400 growers and 14,000 acres, has been experimenting with solar-powered, automated irrigation and low-phosphorus fertilizer to help conserve and protect water in adjacent wetlands and ponds.

Organic growers are a fledgling part of the industry. A handful of growers are growing organically in Massachusetts, Wisconsin and Oregon, with a small contribution from Maine. Starvation Alley, a 10-acre farm in Long Beach, Washington, is poised to be that state's first organic cranberry grower.

Given the cranberry's pesticide rap sheet, we recommend organic crans, or locally sourced berries in a cran-growing state. (See our veggie rule of thumb. *)

Cranberry Characteristics

At first glance, a bowl of fresh cranberries looks like a bunch of baubles waiting to be strung. They come in various shades of red, from faintly pink to crimson.

Pop one in your mouth just as is and you're in for an astringent wallop. Ooh, it's tart. Unless you're into puckered lips, you'll need to sweeten them up. Raw crans pack more of a sour punch than cooked. In the past decade, white cranberries have shown up in the marketplace; they are ripe berries picked a few weeks earlier before the pigments have a chance to deepen and typically are less tart. These days, you're more likely to find white cranberry juice than white fresh crans.

What to Look For When Buying Cranberries

Fresh cranberries should have a sheen. Their color should be bright and opaque versus pale or translucent. Spoiled cranberries will be soft and will not bounce. Personally, I look for crans with a deep, rich color.

Cranberry Nutrition

One-half cup of raw cranberries clocks in at just 25 calories, but remember most of us can't bear its sour strength. You'll get a nice dose of Vitamin C and more than two grams of fiber

But the real power of cranberries lies within its pigments, where there's a mother lode of disease-fighting and health-supporting phytonutrients.

As mentioned earlier, cranberries are a natural source of benzoic acid, a preservative, but it also has antibacterial properties. This is why cranberries discourage plaque buildup in the mouth and are being studied for their potential ability to treat ulcers of both the stomach and the mouth as well as gum disease. Scientists continue to research the fruit's ability to ward off (but not treat) urinary tract infections, as recently as this summer.

Cranberries are packed with anthocyanins, which have been studied for their potential cancer-fighting powers, specifically on cancers of the breast, colon, lung and prostate.

Also of interest is the berry's anti-inflammatory response, which may be helpful in treating a variety of conditions, including Alzheimer's disease. A caveat: Cranberries contain oxalates, which could be an issue for anyone being treated for kidney stones. Check with your medical provider for more information.

About those dried cranberries that we've all come to love: It's worth checking labels to see how they are sweetened. Some brands, such as Eden Organics sweetens its organic dried crans with apple juice concentrate; others such as Bob's Red Mill, Sun-Maid and Ocean Spray Craisins are sweetened with sugar.

What to Do with Cranberries and How to Cook Them

Just because most Americans drink most of their annual cranberry fill doesn't mean you have to.

And what's the obsession with the squiggly jiggly stuff in a can? There's no need to be scared of making the real thing; fresh cranberry sauce takes about a half hour, start to finish. (Check out the recipe below for the cinchy stovetop details.)

I'm a big fan of dried cranberries, not just for granola and out-of-hand snacking but for these biscotti or a twist on oatmeal-raisin cookies. Throw a bunch into rice pilafs - check out how they're featured in this red rice filling for roasted delicata squash.

Even though I don't own a dehydrator, I'm thinking of drying my own cranberries this fall. I've been advised to cut crans in half and add them to a hot simple syrup (or maple syrup) for a few minutes. With a slotted spoon, I'm to remove crans from the sweetened bath, transfer to a baking sheet and into a 170-degree oven. I'll keep you posted on my adventures.

How to Store Cranberries

Because fresh cranberries only come once a year for just a short few weeks, I like to buy several bags and stash them in the freezer for later. Cranberries are lovely all winter long!

For short-term use, store fresh crans in the refrigerator in the bag in which they were packed or into a well-ventilated bowl, along the lines of a colander. Cranberries do not like excessive moisture.

Cranberry Cooking Tips

I'll admit; I'm not terribly experimental when it comes to fresh cranberries. I'm not a fan of raw cran relishes and chutneys; I'd much rather make a bunch of cooked sauce and incorporate it into other dishes. Consider swapping out your favorite jam for cranberry sauce for a sweet-tart twist on PB& J. It goes great with scones, as part of a cheese plate, on top of a waffle or baked sweet potato. Or simply on a spoon.

Recipe: Maple Crans

From The Meat Lover's Meatless Celebrations by Kim O'Donnel. Excerpted by arrangement with Da Capo Lifelong, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2012.

1 pound fresh cranberries, washed thoroughly
2 oranges
8 ounces good-quality pure maple syrup or to taste


Rinse the cranberries and place in a medium-size saucepan. Using a zester or grater, remove the zest of one of the oranges, dice and add to the saucepan. Slice both oranges in half and squeeze the juice over the cranberries. You want enough liquid to barely cover the cranberries; add water as necessary.

Add 34 cup of the maple syrup, reserving the rest to use as needed. Stir the mixture until well mixed and bring to a boil.

Lower the heat and cook at a simmer; cranberries will make a popping noise as they cook, reduce and thicken. Stir occasionally and cook until they reach desired consistency. Taste for the sweet/tart ratio and add more maple syrup as necessary. The cranberries will be ready in as little as 25 minutes.

Serve either warm or at room temperature.

Makes about 2 12 cups cranberries.

Can be made days in advance and either frozen or refrigerated in an airtight container for 5 days.

(*Real Food Rule of Thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG's guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them - agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry's tendency toward large monocrops.)


This post was originally published in November 2013.