Cheery and garnet-colored when raw, deep rich ruby when cooked: Cranberries beautify any harvest or holiday celebration. Bags begin to appear in U.S. stores right around Halloween. I recommend you stock up; they freeze well, and their tart, spiky flavor cuts through rich fare like a sharp knife through a tomato. And while November and December tend to be especially indulgent months, you may still get a craving for cranberries off-season. You’ll be able to whip out a bag, thaw it in no time, and slam together a sauce that you can use to perk up all sorts of dishes, from cheesecakes to a sandwich, to a super healthy bowl.
A little background: Cranberries hail from North America. Native Americans harvested them for food and medicine; they’re essential to pemmican, that paste of dried meat and berries that was an early (if not the first) energy bar. Loaded with vitamin C, antioxidants, pectin, and fiber, cranberries pack a health whallop in a small package. (For ridiculous amounts of data on their health benefits, see this article.)
Here’s the rub. Cranberries are CRAZY SOUR. To get them palatable for modern tastes, most of us need to sweeten them with a good amount of sugar. One part sugar to four parts cranberries is most often recommended, but that doesn’t exactly boost the nutritional value. What’s a health-conscious cook to do?
Here at Le Chou Fou, we try to help. So we recommend any of the following.
Cranberries: The Cooked
The cranberry sauce that I grew up was shaped like a can, complete with a bulge around the middle. Then Mom discovered how easy it was to make the stuff from scratch. Cooking the cranberries with some liquid and some sugar until the skin pops releases the pectin; let the fruit stand for a while—overnight is great—and the sauce thickens, giving you that nice jammy texture that’s so good on a sandwich.
Mom did the old school method: A package of cranberries, a heaping cup of sugar, and some water. But you can knock that sugar way back by getting creative with the liquid. You can use fruit juice that you have on hand, or diluted port wine (port full strength is a bit much). Maple syrup, honey, or coconut sugar can substitute for table sugar at about 1/2 the amount; try a 1:8 ratio instead of 1:4. Mince an apple or pear for more pectin and sweetness. You can even add Stevia if you don’t find the taste too weird. (I always taste bitterness with Stevia, but Steve doesn’t mind it.)
Additionally, cranberries love spices and strong flavorings: cinnamon, clove, fresh ginger, rosemary, thyme. All of those contribute to a richer, more interesting cranberry sauce that isn’t so heavily dependent on sugar. Here’s my recipe blueprint for cooked cranberry sauce. Feel free to to make it your own.
Cranberries: The Raw
Raw cranberry relish sparkles—literally, from all the sugar crystals. It’s lovely and wonderful, but the most difficult of the three options to make without sugar. Nonetheless, the same rules apply. Grate in an apple or pear dipped in cider vinegar (less puckery than lemon juice and helpful in keeping the apple or pear from turning brownish). Be generous with orange peel and chopped orange flesh. The great thing here is that you can add the sugar one tablespoon at a time. Steve and I like it with just 1 tablespoon; that a 1:16 ratio, which we think is pretty cool. (The courageous can substitute Stevia.) Always, always, always taste test until you hit the proportions that work for you and any people who may be joining your table. Here’s my recipe blueprint for raw cranberry relish.
My head remains on my shoulders; I assure you, I have not lost it. Despite what the Heinz corporation would like you to believe, “ketchup” simply means a thick sweet/savory sauce. It can be made with any number of fruits, and the variety made from cranberries is particularly nice. It also works on anything regular old tomato ketchup will work on. The primary difference between cooked cranberry sauce and cranberry ketchup is the addition of onions and vinegar, as well as more savory spices than you’d typically use. But don’t kid yourself that you can eliminate the sugar altogether. Ketchup is meant to be sweet. And man, does it make a dandy topper for a potato waffle (I promise to do a video and post on vegetable waffles soon.) As above, start with a 1:8 ratio, then increase as you taste. Here’s my recipe for sweet savory cranberry beet ketchup.
Cranberries: Other Uses
Cranberries act like a shocking pink pillow in all white room, a welcome kapow or tartness. You just don’t want too many; imagine a dozen shocking pink pillows and you’ll get the idea. Toss a handful of cranberries into a smoothie with plenty of sweet fruit like bananas and mangos; they add beautiful crunch, a hint of pucker, and a ton of antioxidants. Add them to a bowl of vegetables destined to be roasted, coating everything with oil and spices. Fold leftover sweet cranberry sauce or raw cranberry relish into a cheesecake or batch of muffins to turn those comfy sweets into jewel-studded divas of the dessert table. Add any of the recipes in this post to sandwiches, or as the sweet component of a bowl meal. Throw some on top of mashed sweet potatoes. And know that, thanks to a little forethought, you can indulge your cranberry love whenever you like.