Your Guide to Cranberries, the Tart Little Fruit That's More American Than Apple Pie

Cranberries – those punchy, tart crimson berries that will float in water – are native to North America, and no country consumes more than the US. (Yes!)

Bowl of cranberries on a blue placemat

Simply Recipes / Lori Rice

Fresh cranberries are everywhere when they’re in season, and the season lasts a while, and they can do more than Thanksgiving.

Small with shiny crimson skin, cranberries have a bouncy quality to them (they were called “bounceberries” for a while), and they can float, thanks to the four air pockets inside.

As objects, cranberries are fun; as fruits, they’re punchy! Bite into a raw cranberry and you’ll feel a little snap; their flesh is firm and dry and crisp. The flavor is tart, tart, tart, but even that can be fun. Paired with something sweet, cranberries go from pucker-y to palatable.

Perhaps getting to know them better might help us do better when it comes to cranberries. Let’s try! Here’s a guide with history and how-to’s, in hopes of helping you make the most of cranberry season.

A white bowl of fresh cranberries set on a teal linen.
Simply Recipes / Lori Rice

What You Probably Didn’t Know About Cranberries

Cranberries are native to north America. There are two types: the American cranberry (vaccinium macrocarpon) and the Northern cranberry (vaccinium oxycoccus) — they’re similar in looks, but American cranberries are bigger; both are crisp and tart but the Northern cranberry tastes a little grassy, more vegetal. Cranberries were gathered wild up until the 19th century. They were first cultivated in 1816, by Henry Hall, of North Dennis, MA (on Cape Cod).

Most of us picture cranberries in bogs full of water, but they actually grow on dry beds of sandy, clay-like soil. The flooding is only for harvesting, and wet-harvesting is a relatively new practice — it first started in the 1920’s, and the method used today came about in the 1960’s.

It’s also worth noting that not all cranberries are wet-harvested. Dry-harvested cranberries are said to taste better and keep longer. A very small amount are harvested dry and sent to the produce sections of grocery stores — if the package says “dry-harvest” or anything along those lines, give those berries a try.

Cranberries have been naturalized in parts of Northern Europe and Asia, but haven’t gained much popularity. Worldwide, there are only 50,000 acres dedicated to cranberry crops. (FYI, that’s tiny.) Almost all the world’s cranberries (96%) are grown in the US and Canada, and we are their largest consumer.

Let’s recap: cranberries are from the US, we grow the most, they have a place in our most traditional meal, and no country consumes more than we do (no one comes close). I think cranberries might be more American than apple pie.

Simply recipes cranberries

Simply Recipes / Lori Rice

Cranberry Season

Cranberries are fall fruits. Grocery stores have bags galore of fresh cranberries when they’re in season. They’re rarer finds at the farmers market, but local cranberries are worth looking for.

All the other forms of cranberry — dried, frozen, canned cranberries, cranberry juice — have permanent spots in most grocery stores and are easy to find all year long.

How to Pick Good Cranberries

If you find a mound of loose fresh cranberries to choose from, pick the ones that are firm to the touch and feel bouncy. Shiny red skin and this bouncy quality are the big indicators of ripeness.

Fun Fact!

Birds and blossoms are responsible for the cranberry’s English name. Early settlers thought that the blossoms resembled the head and bill of a sand hill crane, so they called the Crane Berry, which eventually turned into Cranberry.

How to Store Cranberries

Store fresh cranberries in the fridge. Packaged fresh cranberries from a grocery store can go right into the crisper drawer. The package will have a best-by date but if they’re still firm by then, they’ll be fine for a few more days.

If you scooped some up at the farmers market, put them in a lidded container or a resealable bag before refrigerating. If they’re good and bouncy, loose cranberries will keep for up to two weeks. Of course, keep an eye on them — you want to use them before they get soft and wrinkled.

Fresh cranberries can keep for a while but the longer you make them wait, the more luster they’ll lose. Keep that in mind.

Bowl of cranberries

Simply Recipes / Lori Rice

How to Cook with Cranberries

Cranberries are refreshingly straightforward and not fussy. They were basically born to be made into jam, jelly, or sauce — and that stuff works with sweet and savory accompaniments.

Cranberries are high in pectin and gel with little cooking time, which makes whipping up that cranberry condiment for the holiday table a breeze. Fresh or frozen, they’ll make a sauce in quick time and with minimal effort on your part. With all their pectin, cranberries can probably replace cornstarch in a fruit pie filling.

Raw cranberries don’t appear in many dishes or recipes, but there’s no rule against it, and there’s no reason not to experiment. They could be nice in cocktails or shaved and sprinkled over crudo. If you like raw cranberries, put them wherever you want (and please let me know about it because I’m very curious).

You can also try one of these delicious recipes:

Preserving Cranberries

The quick easy sauces we make for the holidays are great candidates for canning. Keep some cranberry jam or jelly on hand to put on pancakes or slather onto scones or add to a sandwich — easy ways to brighten up a bleak midwinter day. Or maybe swirl some into ice cream. Use your imagination. Go wild.

Close up of fresh cranberries on a marble background.
Simply Recipes / Lori Rice

Freezing Cranberries

Frozen cranberries are so easy to find you may never want to bother with doing it yourself, and that is perfectly fine!

If you ever do want to freeze your own cranberries, it couldn’t be simpler: Wash and thoroughly dry your cranberries, transfer them to a freezer bag, remove as much air as possible, seal and freeze.

If you want to preserve some cranberry sauce you made, but don’t want to do the whole canning thing, the freezer is your best friend: Fill a freezer bag with the sauce, get the air out, seal the bag, and freeze.