At Thanksgiving, there are two types of carnivores. Those who love cranberry sauce with their turkey, and those who hate it. No matter which category you fall into, your Thanksgiving dinner table is likely to have a bowl of the gelatinous red stuff at the ready. In many households across America, it comes from a can with a slurp and a gurgle. A cylindrical red mass plops right into the bowl and jiggles as it settles.
Do you ever find yourself wondering how it got there? Do you know where cranberries come from? What do these little globes of bitterness go through to get from the farm to your Thanksgiving dinner? Stick around. We’re going to answer these questions and more in this post.
How are cranberries grown?
The first thing any good cranberry grower needs is a big, swampy bog in which to grow his ruby red merchandise. You see, Cranberries are fussy little things. If the farmer doesn’t get conditions just so, they’ll up and die. Here are the very specific conditions cranberries need to grow:
- Boggy, marshy wetlands
- Acid peat soil
- Loads and loads of water
- Water reels (aka Eggbeaters) for wet harvesting
- A mechanical picker for dry harvesting
The wetlands that cranberries require in order to grow tasty enough to make it to your family Thanksgiving are unique. They have to have layers of acidic peat soil, sand, gravel and clay for the cranberry vines to thrive. This combination needs to be pretty precise for our favorite bitter berry to grow and is often found in the world’s bogs that were left behind long ago by glaciers.
Do cranberries grow in water?
Yes and no. There are several points during the life of a cranberry where the field needs to be flooded with water:
- Winter flood
- Late water
- Harvest flood
The winter flood is used to prevent what is called winterkill. That’s when cranberry vines can be harmed by harsh winter weather. Flooding the vines protects them from these brutal winter conditions and the flood can stay put for most of the winter. Think of it as a nice, cozy duvet for the chilly cranberry vines.
Late water is all about keeping the frost away from the precious and delicate cranberry vines. With a pool of water on the cranberry field, frost cannot form on the vines and damage them. Late water seconds as a method of preventing known pests from accessing the cranberry vines. This flood can be done shortly after the winter flood has been pumped out in early spring and then again in late fall.
The harvest flood is only done when you’re collecting your ripe and ready cranberries with the wet method of harvesting. This flood makes harvesting cranberries much easier. The field is flooded with about a foot of water the night before the harvest. On the day of the harvest, water reels (nicknamed eggbeaters) are used to agitate the vines and loosen the berries. When a cranberry is ripe, it has a little air bubble inside which allows it to float. That’s when all the fresh cranberries are collected, the water is pumped from the field and recycled and the fruit is loaded into trucks and shipped off to its next destination.
Where do cranberries go after harvest?
Cranberries destined to be molded into the jellied can form are sent off to the cranberry processing plant. Once they arrive, the red berries are cleansed using specialized equipment that is built specifically so as not to bruise or injure the delicate fruits. Here is a selection of our specialized fruit and vegetable handling equipment. The cranberries are then sent on a ride down a shaker so they can be sorted according to their size. Often, cranberries are stored and frozen at this point. Large cranberry processing plants require large freezers, where wooden crates of cranberries can be stacked to the ceiling. When it’s time to make the cranberry sauce, the blocks of frozen cranberries are broken up with large metal spikes and then mixed with fresh cranberries.
How is canned cranberry sauce made?
Making cranberry sauce is a simple process. Sometimes the fruit is pureed before cooking, and sometimes the berries just go straight into the hot water where they are boiled in large mixing kettles. That’s when the bitter berries are sweetened and simmered a second time so the fruit transforms into a gooey red slop. The sweetener tends to be corn syrup more often than not and lemon or citric acid can be added as a flavor enhancer and a preservative. The mixture is also often pasteurized to lengthen its life in the can and make it safe for you to serve to your family at Thanksgiving.
Interestingly, there is no gelatin added to the sauce. Its jellied state is solely a result of the thickening of corn syrup or sugar.
Once the sauce has reached perfection, it is poured into cans using specialized canning equipment and they are then steamed for sterilization and sealed. Since our sticky red sauce is still quite hot, the cans require cooling and so they head to a chilly water bath. Once they’ve dropped sufficiently in temperature and the cans are dried, they head onto the labeler and find their way into a case that’s headed to your local grocery store.
It’s not uncommon for these cans of gooey fruit to sell out around Thanksgiving. If you’ve found yourself without can-shaped cranberries, worry not! Making your own homemade cranberry sauce is almost as easy as opening a can!
How do you make cranberry sauce?
You will need:
- 1 12 oz bag of fresh cranberries
- 1 cup of white sugar
- 1 cup of orange juice
- 2 tsp of orange zest (optional)
To get that delicious sauce on the table, all you have to do is wash your cranberries and throw them in a saucepan with the rest of the ingredients. Bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer until your berries start popping. Remove from the heat, and the sauce will get thicker as it cools.
Optional flavor-enhancers can include a little shake of cinnamon (or you can boil your berries with a cinnamon stick), fresh-squeezed lemon juice and lemon zest, a pinch of nutmeg, pecans, blueberries and much more.
What can I do with leftover cranberry sauce?
For most families, this makes way too much cranberry sauce, though and you’re going to end up with a tub of it in your fridge for the next week. What can you do with leftover cranberry sauce once dinner is over? Here are some ideas:
- Cook it into your favorite muffin recipe. Muffins love cranberries.
- Spread it generously on a piece of buttered toast and gobble it alongside your coffee in the morning.
- Use it as a colorful condiment on a turkey sandwich.
- Add it to plain yogurt for a cranberry-flavored dairy treat.
- The kids will love it as a pancake topping in place of the usual syrup.
- A bagel with cream cheese and cranberry sauce is to-die-for
- Glaze your meat with it. Whether you’re roasting or grilling, cranberry sauce makes an excellent and flavorful glaze for poultry especially.
No matter what you use it for, there is clearly no need to toss the jewel-colored sauce in the trash.
There you have it! The story of the gorgeous cranberry, from the farm to your table, to your bagel with cream cheese.