Everything you ever wanted to know about cranberries: where they’re from, how they’re grown, and recipes showing you how to cook with them. Don’t miss the superfood spotlight on cranberries!
Cranberries, the tart berries best known as a Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner sauce. We enjoy dried and sweetened cranberries as snacks and oatmeal toppers, and a splash of cranberry juice in a Cosmopolitan, but have you ever stopped to dig a bit deeper into cranberries?
This seasonal food spotlight dives deep into where cranberries are from, how they are grown, their health benefits, and all of the ways you take cranberries from a fall and winter fruit to a delicious part of an inspired meal any time of year.
Read to learn all about cranberries? Read on or click the links below to jump to everything you want to know about cranberries.
- What are cranberries
- Cranberry cultivation of culinary history
- Where cranberries grow and their season
- Cranberry sustainability
- Cranberry varieties
- Fun facts about cranberries
- Cranberry nutrition
- Health benefits of cranberries
- How to choose, cook, and store cranberries
- Resources for more cranberry info and research
Cranberries are grown on small shrubs that are botanically considered evergreen dwarf shrubs, or trailing vines, and grow up to 7 feet (2m) long and 2-8 inches (5-20cm) in height. The bushes have wiry stems with dark evergreen leaves, dark pink flowers, and the cranberry fruit. Cranberries begin their growth light green in color and then turn white when fully grown (when white cranberry juice is harvested), and finally turn dark red when they are fully ripe. They are cousins to other wild berries like blueberries and bilberries.
Cranberries are very tart when eaten raw, and are usually sweetened when cooked to combat the tart acidity. Cranberries are often made into juices, jams, sauces, or dried and sweetened to be eaten as a snack.
Cranberries, more than any other fruit, are distinctly North American. Though other types of berries in the cranberry family are grown in northern areas around the world, the big, red berries we commonly eat today are native to what is now the United States and Canada.
It is well documented that wild cranberries were foraged by Native Americans for food, medicine, and dye for textiles. Many European settlers wrote about the fresh berries for culinary use, including mixed with maple syrup, dried, and made into sauces for meats.
Because cranberries are grown in marshy bogs that are hard to access, they remained a fruit that was largely foraged but never cultivated. However, in the early 1800’s a Massachusetts farmer discovered that covering cranberries vines with sand allowed them to grow, and he later drained swampland and developed the first commercial cranberry bogs. Cultivation then spread from New England into New Jersey and Wisconsin, and west to Washington State in the late 1800s (source).
Americans, and the rest of the world, became cranberry crazy in the early 1900s, when cranberries were made into a sauce and canned. In World War II cranberries were deemed a war crop and cranberry farmers began drying fruit and sending to troops overseas.
Today cranberries are still associated with the United States and Canada, particularly with the Thanksgiving fall harvest meals and also increasingly with typical North American Christmas dinners. However, cranberries are much more than just a fruit to enjoy in the fall and because they freeze easily and can be canned or juiced, they are a great berry to enjoy year round.
Cranberries naturally grow in countries in the Northern Hemisphere along coastal area bogs, but today the world’s biggest producers are the United States, Canada, and Chile. Cranberries grow wild in swampy bogs with sandy soil, but today they are harvested in large man-made bogs that are flooded and sanded to produce more a uniform fruit. Flooding allows berries to release from the vine and float to the top of the flooded field, and they are then gathered with large scoops.
Cranberries vines are perrenial plants, meaning they do not have to be replanted and will instead produce fruit each year. Their flowers bloom in the spring, but the cranberry fruit is usually harvested in fall, from September to December.
While New England was the original native growing region in the United States, today Wisconsin leads US production, followed by Massachussetts, New Jersey, Oregon, and Washington, while British Columbia is Canada’s cranberry region. Chile now also cultivates the common cranberry, but Northern Asia, Russia, and parts of Northern Europe also grow different varieties of cranberries.
Because of the modern-day practice of flooding cranberry bogs, the little red berries are very water-intensive to grow. And while cranberry growers do their best to reuse water from one bog to another, pesticide use in cranberry production is widespread (cranberries are often high on the list of fruits and vegetables with high pesticides). Unfortunately, releasing pesticide-containing water from bogs to streams and waterways is a common practice in cranberry cultivation, which has the potential to damage ecosystems surrounding cranberry bogs.
However, the cranberry industry is making changes by experimenting with various types solar-powered and automated irrigation methods, low phosphorus fertilizers, and the industry as a whole has seen an increase in the amount of organic growers.
How should you do your part when buying cranberries?
Buy organic whenever possible. We as consumers have the power to use our dollars to support the food production methods that do not strip the earth of its resources, or damage surrounding ecosystems.
Cranberries as we know them today are only one type of edible berry that grows on trailing vines in the subgenus Oxycoccus of the genus Vaccinium. Other closely related cousins to cranberries include:
- Common cranberry, northern cranberry (Vaccinium oxycoccos, Oxycoccus palustris): the cranberry we know and love today, it grows through the cool part of the Northern Hemisphere in Europe, Asia, and North America. It has small leaves and pink flowers, and the berry is small and has an acidic flavor.
- Small cranberry (Vaccinium microcarpu, Oxycoccus microcarpus): grows in North America, northern Europe, and northern Asia. This cousin to the common cranberry has a small berry and triangular leaves.
- Large cranberry, American cranberry, bearberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon, Oxycoccus macrocarpus): native only to North America, it can be found across Canada and down the eastern United States seaboard, all the way into North Carolina. The berry has a slight apple taste and it has much larger leaves.
- Southern mountain cranberry (Vaccinium erythrocarpum, oxycoccus erythrocarpus): this cranberry is found in the southeastern part of North America (mostly the high altitude part of the Appalachian Mountains), and also in northeastern Asia.
- American whalers and mariners carried cranberries on board to prevent scurvy.
- Native Americans brewed cranberry poultices to draw poison from arrow wounds, used cranberry in tea to calm nerves, as well as using the juice as a dye for fabrics.
- “Cramberys” were on the menu at the 1703 commencement dinner at Harvard College.
- The cranberry became the official state berry of Massachusetts in 1994 and official fruit of Wisconsin in 2004.
- 95% of cranberry harvest are used to produce cranberry juice, jellies, and dried cranberries.
One cup of cranberries is about 90 calories, contain 4.7 grams of fiber, and are low in sugar at only 5 grams per cup. One cup of cranberry juice is an excellent source of vitamins C and E, and a good source of vitamins A and K. Cranberries are naturally low in sodium and saturated fat free.
One thing to keep in mind with cranberry products is that sugar is often added to cranberry juice and dried cranberries because of their naturally tart taste. Compare nutrition labels to opt for the lowest sugar option for cranberry juice, and choose dried cranberries that are sweetened with natural juices (apple juice is a common cranberry sweetener) instead of refined sugar.
And remember: a sweetener, no matter if it’s “natural” or refine sugar, is still sugar; however, sometimes the greener option is sweetening with juices, honey, or maple because refined sugar production may cause more environmental harm than other sugar options.
Cranberries are full of polyphenols called flavonoids and anthocyanins, which act as antioxidants in your body by becoming a “clean up crew” helping to rid your cells of free radicals that cause cell damage, which may reduce inflammation. Vitamins, minerals, and other compounds act as antioxidants in the body and support cell health; vitamin C, vitamin K, and vitamin A are just some of the antioxidants found in cranberries.
Because of cranberries’ high beneficial nutrient and antioxidant amounts, it’s safe to say that they are a “superfood!” However, realize that all foods–including cranberries–fit into a healthy and balanced diet. Here at Fork in the Road we spotlight and celebrate all foods, “superfood” or not. See our take on superfoods here.
Is it true cranberry juice helps with urinary tract infections?
Cranberry juice has long been recognized as natural prevention for urinary tract infections (UTIs), but more commonly the research has not substantiated this claim.
Should you drink cranberry juice when you feel a UTI coming on?
It can’t hurt to drink more fluids overall if you feel early signs of a UTI, however these types of infections can quickly escalate and cause kidney infections, so it is best to see a doctor and not try to cure the infection yourself.
Cranberry season hits its peak in fall, and the season usually runs from September to early December. The freshest cranberries are plump and tart and can be enjoyed for longer than their season by canning in jams, preserves, and by freezing (we freeze cranberries in the fall each year and pull them out to thaw for sauces, jams, and baked goods all winter long).
Buying and Storing Cranberries
- Look for fresh, dry-harvest cranberries at the market or store (if you live in a cranberry growing area)
- If you’re not in a cranberry cultivating region, look for USDA Certified Organic cranberries and cranberry products (easier to find online than in some stores)
- Store fresh cranberries in a container with holes or in the bag they were sold in to allow for airflow
- Wash cranberries before using and eating
- Cranberries will stay fresh for weeks after purchase
- Freeze cranberries to enjoy throughout the winter months after cranberry season has ended
Recipes and tips for using cranberries
Cranberries are a fruit that are usually eaten cooked and preserved as jams and jellies. However, here at Fork in the Road we believe in using fruits and vegetables in unique and exciting ways that you haven’t tried before, including:
- Make a cranberry sauce: cranberries are the perfect easy berry for sauces and compotes. Try our Maple Bourbon Cranberry Sauce or Cranberry Thyme Compote to use as toppings for meats, as sandwich spreads, or as jams for your morning toast
- Dried cranberries are the perfect salad topper: dried cranberries are the perfect way to add a touch of tart sweetness to seasonal salads. Try our favorite Butternut Squash Cranberry Kale Salad or Winter Beet Butternut Squash Salad recipes using cranberries
- Cranberries as a superfood snack: dried cranberries on their own are a great snack and would be an excellent addition to a trail mix or pickable platter, like our Fall Harvest Snack Board
Are you cranberry crazy and want more resources on cranberries? Never fear, I’ve got you covered:
- FoodPrint has a great overview of cranberries, including more in-depth information about cranberry sustainability
- For more on the history of cranberries, read Sustainable Table’s real food review of cranberries
- Want a one-stop-shop for all things cranberries? Head over to the US Cranberries website for recipes, research, and seasonal cranberry news